Gate Control Theory
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Gate Control Theory

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What is Gate Control Theory?

The gate control theory of pain asserts that non-painful input closes the nerve “gates” to painful input, which prevents pain sensation from travelling to the central nervous system.

This theory describes how non-painful sensations can override and reduce painful sensations. A painful, nociceptive stimulus stimulates primary afferent fibres and travels to the brain via transmission cells. Increasing the activity of the transmission cells results in increased perceived pain. Conversely, decreasing the activity of transmission cells reduces perceived pain. In the theory, a closed “gate” describes when the input to transmission cells is blocked, therefore reducing the sensation of pain. An open “gate” describes when the input to transmission cells is permitted, therefore allowing the sensation of pain.

How does gate control theory explain the perception of pain?

During the early 1960s, Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall discussed gate control theory to explain why our mental states impact pain perceptions. Furthermore, it suggests that the spinal cord contains a neurological “gate” that can block or allow pain signals to continue to the Brain.

Psychological researchers study factors such as thoughts, emotions, and expectations which can influence an individual’s perceptions of pain. If a person fears that pain will be severe, then the pain may be more intense than a person who would not fear the pain.

Gate Control Theory
Gate Control Theory

Melzack and Wall explain why a person tends to rub an injury after it happened. The increase in usual touch sensory information helps inhibit pain fiber activity, therefore reducing the perception of pain. This gate theory is also often used to explain why massage and touch can be helpful pain management strategies during childbirth. Because the touch increases substantial fiber activity, it has an inhibitory effect on pain signals. (Cherry. K 2019)

References for further reading:
  1. Katz, J & Rosenbloom, BN. The golden anniversary of Melzack and Wall’s gate control theory of pain: Celebrating 50 years of pain research and management. Pain Res Manag. 2015;20(6):285-286.
  2. Melzack R, & Wall PD. Pain mechanisms: a new theory. Science (New York, N.Y.). 1965;150(3699):971-9 PMID: 5320816