The Nervous System and Pain
There is no single “pain center” in the body. Your nervous system controls how you process and feel pain. The nervous system consists of two basic parts:
- Central nervous system: the brain and spinal cord
- Peripheral nervous system: nerves and nerve pathways throughout the body
When the body is damaged by disease or injury, tissues in the affected area release chemicals that communicate with nerves. Nerve pathways carry the messages from that area to the spinal cord and up to the brain. Pain information goes to several parts of the brain that recognize pain but also help control and adjust mood, sleep and hormones. That’s why having chronic pain can affect so many aspects of your body and daily life.
The brain sends messages back through the pathways down to the body to reduce or stop pain sensations. The message from the brain may also trigger an immediate response, for example, to pull your hand away from a hot stove.
In the case of arthritis, pain relief treatments target your nervous system in different ways:
- Blocking or turning down pain messages in the brain
- Stopping inflammatory chemicals from communicating with nerves
- Quieting overactive nerves and/or blocking them from sending pain messages
- Stimulating the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins
When you have arthritis pain for a long time, nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord can change over time. Those changes may last after the cause of the pain has been successfully treated. That’s one of the reasons pain can become its own chronic disease.