Spinal cord mechanisms of pain

Br J Anaesth. 2008 Jul;101(1):8-16. doi: 10.1093/bja/aen088. Epub 2008 Apr 15.


The spinal cord is the first relay site in the transmission of nociceptive information from the periphery to the brain. Sensory signals are transmitted from the periphery by primary afferent fibres into the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, where these afferents synapse with intrinsic spinal dorsal horn neurones. Spinal projection neurones then convey this information to higher centres in the brain, where non-noxious and noxious signals can be perceived. During nociceptive transmission, the output of the spinal cord is dependent on various spinal mechanisms which can either increase or decrease the activity of dorsal horn neurones. Such mechanisms include local excitatory and inhibitory interneurones, N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor activation, and descending influences from the brainstem, which can be both inhibitory and excitatory in nature. After nerve injury or conditions of inflammation, shifts can occur in these excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms which modulate spinal excitability, often resulting in the heightened response of dorsal neurones to incoming afferent signals, and increased output to the brain, a phenomenon known as central sensitization. In this review, we consider the ways in which spinal cord activity may be altered in chronic pain states. In addition, we discuss the spinal mechanisms which are targeted by current analgesics used in the management of chronic pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Brain Stem / physiopathology
  • Glutamine / physiology
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology
  • Nociceptors / physiology
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pain Management
  • Posterior Horn Cells / physiology
  • Spinal Cord / drug effects
  • Spinal Cord / physiopathology*


  • Analgesics
  • Glutamine