Detailed guides to painful problems, treatments & more

Can you define “nociception”?

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Recently I did a Twitter poll asking patients if they had any idea what “nociception” is. “No clinicians allowed,” I declared. “Normal humans only. Not pain-science dorks and wonks.”

58% didn’t have a clue, and the rest weren’t sure. Only 21% thought they could define it. That’s not many, and it’s not a surprise. In fact, I strongly suspect that clinicians wouldn’t do well with this question on a pop quiz.

Nociception is the conversion of noxious stimuli into nerve impulses. It is not the same thing as pain. We are constantly exposed to lots of minor noxious stimuli without pain. Major sources — like from a burn, cut, or stepping on a Lego on your way to the bathroom at 2am — usually lead to pain… but not always. And pain can sometimes happen without any nociception at all! Or it might just be out of proportion to it. And that is why this definition matters to a lot of people with serious pain: it’s a key technical detail about how pain works.

For everyone else, it’s splitting hairs … but knowledge is good. I don’t need to know as much about wiring as an electrician, but I am happy to learn whatever I can.

Want to learn more? There is plenty more to learn! See Pain is Weird.