Central sensitization represents an enhancement in the function of neurons and circuits in nociceptive pathways caused by increases in membrane excitability and synaptic efficacy as well as to reduced inhibition and is a manifestation of the remarkable plasticity of the somatosensory nervous system in response to activity, inflammation, and neural injury. The net effect of central sensitization is to recruit previously subthreshold synaptic inputs to nociceptive neurons, generating an increased or augmented action potential output: a state of facilitation, potentiation, augmentation, or amplification. Central sensitization is responsible for many of the temporal, spatial, and threshold changes in pain sensibility in acute and chronic clinical pain settings and exemplifies the fundamental contribution of the central nervous system to the generation of pain hypersensitivity. Because central sensitization results from changes in the properties of neurons in the central nervous system, the pain is no longer coupled, as acute nociceptive pain is, to the presence, intensity, or duration of noxious peripheral stimuli. Instead, central sensitization produces pain hypersensitivity by changing the sensory response elicited by normal inputs, including those that usually evoke innocuous sensations.
Perspective: In this article, we review the major triggers that initiate and maintain central sensitization in healthy individuals in response to nociceptor input and in patients with inflammatory and neuropathic pain, emphasizing the fundamental contribution and multiple mechanisms of synaptic plasticity caused by changes in the density, nature, and properties of ionotropic and metabotropic glutamate receptors.