Gate Control Theory of Pain

Gate Control Theory
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Gate Control Theory

What is Gate Control Theory?

Gate Control Theory posits that there is a gate between the spinal cord and the brain that controls what information gets through. This theory was first proposed by Melzack and Wall in 1965, in an attempt to explain why some people experience pain and others do not. According to this theory, there are two types of pain: nociceptive pain and neuropathic pain. Nociceptive pain is caused by tissue damage, while neuropathic pain is caused by damage to the nervous system. The gate between the spinal cord and the brain can be open or closed, depending on the type of information that is trying to get through. If the gate is open, then the information will be sent to the brain and the person will feel pain. However, if the gate is closed, then the information will not be sent to the brain and the person will not feel pain.

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.


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)

Why is gate control theory important?

Gate control theory is important because it helps to explain how our nervous system works. This theory states that there are certain gates in our nervous system that control the flow of information. When these gates are open, information can pass through and be processed by our brain. However, when these gates are closed, information is blocked from passing through. This theory can help to explain why some people experience pain and others do not.

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
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