Whether you are a Movement Professional or simply someone that experiences pain from time to time, understanding how The Gate Control Theory of Pain works is beneficial information to have stored in the brain vault. Knowledge is power and this power can lead to change. This will be a simplified understanding of the theory and not a neuronerd deep dive into the abyss.
Quick and Dirty Background
In 1965 Psychologist Ronald Melzack and Neuroscientist Patrick Wall introduced this theory and turned pain research upside down. They proposed that signals or messages (neurostimulus) travel from the peripheral body through nerve ‘gates’ in the spinal cord and then further up to the brain for processing. They theorized that increasing or decreasing these signals could open or close these gates to filter the information reaching the brain.
Flooding The Gates
If there is too much muchness the gates can be completely bypassed and these signals or messages will go straight to the brain without any filtering or diffusing in place. This overwhelms the Systems and floods the gates forcing them to stay open. The gates remaining open often leads to ongoing pain or an increased awareness of pain and encourages continued suffering.
How are these signals increased to such a state that the gates remain open? I liken this to poking the bear. If something negative continues to happen aggressively over and over bad things are bound to happen. Examples of this would be repeated injury or repetitive use.
If a person continues to do the same activity that is triggering pain without making the proper modifications or resting when needed they are not going to improve. Every time the activity is repeated it is intensifying the already increased signal. The Systems get more efficient at producing and being in pain. Hello neuroplasticity!
The mental and emotional issues surrounding the story of the pain experience is yet another example of how amplifying the signals flood the gates. The more something hurts or limits our way of being the more attention it receives. Think of the spiral of negativity that develops with ongoing pain and trauma! How many times have you noticed in yourself or in others how pain and suffering changes people?
While there are numerous ways to force open these gates, there are just as many ways to close them.
Closing The Gates
If too much, too fast, and too often can increase the signals it stands to reason that slow non-invasive feedback can decrease the signals. Decreased neuroception encourages less suffering and will close the gates. This can lead to reduced pain levels and improved processing.
When we get injured one of the immediate responses we have is to put pressure on the area or rub it in a self-soothing strategy. We are instinctively decreasing the signal. This desensitization closes the gates so the brain can apply better coping strategies and diffuse the situation in order to #protectthehuman moving forward.
We can actively look for ways to increase the feel good neuroception options that work to do this.
Seeking therapies that effectively improve how things feel via non-threatening touch such as massage therapy. Working on increasing range of motion, strength and stamina to fortify the ability to move well and heal well. Incorporating nourishing movement throughout the day as we inadvertently move into and out of those negative movement triggers. Using mindset tools, talk therapies, and enhancing positive experiences to improve the mental and emotional aspects of living through pain.
Recognizing or becoming aware of this problem provides the opportunity to address it.
Why This Is Important For You To Understand
The reason I believe The Gate Control Theory of Pain is important to understand is that it enables a person in pain and the person working with people in pain to take back their innate healing power.
Pain does not make you helpless. It’s a signal for change and these signals can be changed.
This theory also happens to be the gateway (pun totally intended sorry not sorry) into further research that brought us The Neuromatrix Theory. It continues to define the psychology of pain and affects how we work with our clients. We’ll be diving into a simplified understanding of the Neuromatrix in a future article.