Gate Control Theory of Pain (Explanation)

Have you ever watched two people get a tattoo, and have completely different experiences? One person is stressed from the moment they walk in, and later describe the experience as very painful. The other person thinks the tattoo will be no big deal, and sit through the process without so much as a flinch. 

What happened? Is one person a wimp? Is one person faking how much pain they actually experienced? Or did each person actually experience different levels of pain, despite getting the tattoo in the same place? 

What Is the Gate Control Theory of Pain? 

The Gate Control Theory of Pain suggests that two people may experience different levels of pain based on factors like their mood and mindset. This theory also suggests that an individual may experience different levels of pain based on these factors.

The Gate Control Theory of Pain is not without its critiques, but it may be the key to reducing your own pain!

Who Proposed the Gate Control Theory of Pain?

In 1965, Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall published The Gate Control Theory of Pain. The theory combined previous notions of pain, and attempted to answer questions on why we may perceive pain to different degrees. 

The theory describes two different types of nerve fibers that influence our perception of pain. The first type of nerve fibers have nothing to do with pain at all: these are large nerve fibers (large-diameter sensory fibers) that send information to the brain about touch, pressure, or vibration. Smaller nerve fibers (small-diameter sensory fibers, or pain receptors) include information about pain. 

Two types of brain cells make a big difference in pain perception as well: inhibitory neurons and projection cells. Inhibitory neurons prevent sensory information from reaching the brain. Projection cells send information from the spinal cord to the brain. 

In the Gate Control Theory of Pain, the presence of non-pain input, including information from these large-diameter sensory fibers, “open” or “close” the gate that allows pain receptors to perceive pain. More large-fiber activity keeps the gate “closed.” They excite the inhibitory neurons, “closing” the gate and preventing projection neurons from telling the brain about pain. When the gates are open, small nerve fibers reach the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. They send a message to projection cells, which reach the brain and let us know that we are experiencing pain. 

Why Do We Feel Pain? 

Pain is typically regarded as a negative thing. No one wants to be in pain. No one wants to sit through a tattoo twice a week. But pain isn’t always a bad thing. Pain sends a signal to the brain because it wants to tell us a message: get out. Go away. Avoid what you are doing. 

For example, the authors of the Gate Control Theory of Pain described the peril of a young girl who could not experience pain. (This is a disorder known as Congenital analgesia.) She climbed on a hot radiator, not experiencing any sort of pain telling her to back away or jump off. As a result, she got third-degree burns on her knees. Had pain receptors reached her brain, she could have prevented herself from getting burned so badly. 

Is pain an entirely bad thing? No. But we do have to deal with pain temporarily sometimes. If we can “close the gates” while being aware of our surroundings, we can respond to different stimuli more successfully. 

How Does Gate-Control Theory Suggest Pain is Blocked?

This theory attempts to explain why we might rub, scratch, or massage an area that has been injured. Rubbing, scratching, and massage are all forms of touch that are not painful. These are “large-fiber” activities. When the body picks up on these non-painful sensory experiences, the gate becomes “closed” to pain. Leaving the area alone or sitting idle prevents the gate from being closed. The gate remains open, and all we can focus on is our pain.

This is why we may be told to “walk off” an injury. Walking, feeling our feet hit the ground and our arms swing throughout the air all provide sensory information that has nothing to do with pain. Another example of this is using an ice pack or a heating pad. Heat, for example, can help to loosen up the muscles. But it also gives the body a sensory experience other than pain to send to the brain. 

Blocking Pain in Everyday Life 

In general, the Gate Control Theory of Pain encourages people to focus on sensations other than pain to reduce pain fibers from reaching the brain. This isn’t just a physical process. In the years that followed the original publication of the Gate Control Theory of Pain, Ronald Melzack proposed that there are affective and cognitive components to this theory. 

In order to reduce the amount of pain that you experience before getting a tattoo, stay calm. Focus your attention on the feeling of the ground under your feet or the feeling of the clothes touching your body. Take a deep breath, and feel the sensation of the breath arriving in through the nose and out through the nose. All of these practices are not just meditative, slowing down the heart rate and putting you in a better headspace. They also ways to excite inhibitory neurons and block pain receptors from communicating with the brain. 

What Keeps the Gates Open

Focusing on pain keeps the gates open and allows more projection cells to reach the pain and communicate about your pain. If you are anticipating pain, and only focused on pain, you are going to feel that pain. Only when your mind is distracted elsewhere do you have a chance of reducing the amount of pain receptors that communicate with the brain. 

How Does This Theory Play Out?

Like any scientific theory, the Gate Control Theory has been the subject of many experiments to test its validity. Can you actually reduce the amount of pain you experience just by being calm, cool, and collected? 

Yes and no. We have not gotten into the close, neurological details that other scientists may pay attention to while testing out this theory. Fifty years after the Gate Control Theory of Pain was published, here is what neurologist Lorne M. Mendell has to say

“Although subsequent experiments and clinical findings have made clear that the model is not correct in detail, the general ideas put forth in the paper and the experiments they prompted in both animals and patients have transformed our understanding of pain mechanisms.” 

What does that mean? You cannot walk over to a hot stove, take a few deep breaths, and place your hand on the stove expecting no pain. Even if you are completely calm, you will still experience some levels of pain. But if you are preparing for a tattoo, telling yourself how much pain you are going to feel is not going to help, either. 

Reducing Pain Using the Gate-Control Theory

The best thing that you can do for yourself, whether you are up against physical pain or emotional stress, is find ways to relax the body. Take deep breaths, and focus on the movement of your breath throughout the body. Look for the things that you can control, and accept that certain things are out of your control. Find ways to get your mind off of stressful topics, like watching a comedy show that you like or listening to a guided meditation. 

These relaxing activities do make an impact on the way that the brain and body responds to different stimuli. You will be able to think more clearly, look at potentially stressful situations more accurately, and respond to different stimuli more “successfully.” No human can avoid pain, stress, confusion, or problems that need to be solved. With a calm mind, however, we can face all of these things without causing ourselves more trouble.

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.