Beyond pain in the brain: A clinician's guide to interpreting the spinal cord's role in the pain experience

Musculoskelet Sci Pract. 2022 Dec:62:102664. doi: 10.1016/j.msksp.2022.102664. Epub 2022 Sep 9.


Introduction: Physical therapy practice has greatly improved in providing a biopsychosocial approach when considering persistent pain. However, the spinal cord is often overlooked as a structure with an important role in modulating nociceptive information.

Purpose: This article highlights the role of the dorsal horn (DH) in nociceptive processing and its impact on persistent pain conditions as they appear clinically. Key processes occurring in the spinal cord are described, including cellular changes and local spinal network responses to nociceptive stimuli. Additionally, associated clinical symptoms are discussed and some aspects of physical therapy evaluation are challenged based on the mechanisms of nociceptive processing presented in this commentary.

Implications: The spinal cord is an active participant in nociceptive processing, directly impacting the intensity, spread, and recurrence of pain, including within the context of central sensitization. Changes in the behavior of DH neurons are possible with sufficient stimulation and may occur after injury. Additionally, spinal cord activation patterns may lead to bilateral symptoms given adequate strength and duration despite a single peripheral driver. Viewing the spinal cord as a dynamic structure capable of up or down regulating its response to stimuli gives the clinician a better understanding of the nervous system's complex response to prolonged nociceptive input.

Keywords: Central sensitization; Chronic pain; Neurophysiology; Nociception; Spinal cord.

MeSH terms

  • Brain
  • Humans
  • Pain*
  • Spinal Cord* / physiology