Why Head And Face Pain Causes More Suffering

Source: Duke University

Summary: Researchers have discovered how the brain’s circuitry make us suffer more from head and face pain than the pain elsewhere in the body.

Hate headaches? The suffering you feel is not all in your head. People always rate the pain of head, face, eyeballs, ears and teeth as troublesome and emotionally draining when compared to the pain elsewhere in the body. The answer may not just lie in the report given to us by the five senses but in how that sensation makes us feel emotionally. Researchers from Duke University have discovered how the brain’s circuitry make us suffer more from head and face pain than pain elsewhere in the body. The research team found that the sensory neurons which serve the head and face are directly wired into one of the brain’s primary emotional signaling hubs. Sensory neurons from other parts of the body are also connected to this place but only indirectly. The research findings were published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Sensory neurons from head and face connect directly to brain's emotional center

Sensory neurons from the head and face (green) are wired directly into one of the brain’s primary emotional signaling hubs, called the parabrachial nucleus (PBL). Pain in the head or face stimulates PBL neurons, highlighted in pink. Credit: Fan Wang, Duke University

Pain signals from the head versus body are carried to the brain through two different sensory neuron groups. And it is very much possible that neurons from the head are more sensitive to pain when compared to the neurons from the body. But the researchers said differences in sensitivity may not explain the complete reason instead emotional suffering experienced by the patients does. The study backed up by fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) where greater activity is observed in the amygdala region (involved in emotional experiences) of the brain in response to head pain than to body pain. They also found higher activity in the brain’s parabrachial nucleus (PBL), which is directly connected to the brain’s emotional and instinctive centers. The results may open the doors for more effective treatments for pain (mediated by craniofacial nerve) such as chronic headaches and neuropathic face pain.

Prof. Qiufu Ma said, “Some of the most debilitating forms of pain occur in the head regions, such as migraine”, “The discovery of this direct pain pathway might provide an explanation why facial pain is more severe and more unpleasant.”

More Information: Erica Rodriguez et al, “A craniofacial-specific monosynaptic circuit enables heightened affective pain”, Nature Neuroscience (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41593-017-0012-1

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