Visceral Pain

Annu Rev Physiol. 2019 Feb 10:81:261-284. doi: 10.1146/annurev-physiol-020518-114525. Epub 2018 Oct 31.


Most of us live blissfully unaware of the orchestrated function that our internal organs conduct. When this peace is interrupted, it is often by routine sensations of hunger and urge. However, for >20% of the global population, chronic visceral pain is an unpleasant and often excruciating reminder of the existence of our internal organs. In many cases, there is no obvious underlying pathological cause of the pain. Accordingly, chronic visceral pain is debilitating, reduces the quality of life of sufferers, and has large concomitant socioeconomic costs. In this review, we highlight key mechanisms underlying chronic abdominal and pelvic pain associated with functional and inflammatory disorders of the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts. This includes how the colon and bladder are innervated by specialized subclasses of spinal afferents, how these afferents become sensitized in highly dynamic signaling environments, and the subsequent development of neuroplasticity within visceral pain pathways. We also highlight key contributing factors, including alterations in commensal bacteria, altered mucosal permeability, epithelial interactions with afferent nerves, alterations in immune or stress responses, and cross talk between these two adjacent organs.

Keywords: afferents; bladder; colon; mechanosensation; neurons; nociception.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / pathology
  • Animals
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / pathology
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / pathology
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Urinary Tract / pathology
  • Visceral Pain / pathology*