Clifford Woolf recently said this about central sensitisation:
Nociceptor inputs can trigger a prolonged but reversible increase in the excitability and synaptic efficacy of neurons in central nociceptive pathways, the phenomenon of central sensitization. Central sensitization manifests as pain hypersensitivity, particularly dynamic tactile allodynia, secondary punctate or pressure hyperalgesia, aftersensations, and enhanced temporal summation. It can be readily and rapidly elicited in human volunteers by diverse experimental noxious conditioning stimuli to skin, muscles or viscera, and in addition to producing pain hypersensitivity, results in secondary changes in brain activity that can be detected by electrophysiological or imaging techniques. Studies in clinical cohorts reveal changes in pain sensitivity that have been interpreted as revealing an important contribution of central sensitization to the pain phenotype in patients with fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, musculoskeletal disorders with generalized pain hypersensitivity, headache, temporomandibular joint disorders, dental pain, neuropathic pain, visceral pain hypersensitivity disorders and post-surgical pain. The comorbidity of those pain hypersensitivity syndromes that present in the absence of inflammation or a neural lesion, their similar pattern of clinical presentation and response to centrally acting analgesics, may reflect a commonality of central sensitization to their pathophysiology. An important question that still needs to be determined is whether there are individuals with a higher inherited propensity for developing central sensitization than others, and if so, whether this conveys an increased risk in both developing conditions with pain hypersensitivity, and their chronification. Diagnostic criteria to establish the presence of central sensitization in patients will greatly assist the phenotyping of patients for choosing treatments that produce analgesia by normalizing hyperexcitable central neural activity. We have certainly come a long way since the first discovery of activity-dependent synaptic plasticity in the spinal cord and the revelation that it occurs and produces pain hypersensitivity in patients. Nevertheless, discovering the genetic and environmental contributors to and objective biomarkers of central sensitization will be highly beneficial, as will additional treatment options to prevent or reduce this prevalent and promiscuous form of pain plasticity.
Central sensitization represents an enhancement in the function of neurons and circuits in nociceptive pathways caused by increases in membrane excitability and synaptic efficacy as well as to reduced inhibition and is a manifestation of the remarkable plasticity of the somatosensory nervous system in response to activity, inflammation, and neural injury. The net effect of central sensitization is to recruit previously subthreshold synaptic inputs to nociceptive neurons, generating an increased or augmented action potential output: a state of facilitation, potentiation, augmentation, or amplification. Central sensitization is responsible for many of the temporal, spatial, and threshold changes in pain sensibility in acute and chronic clinical pain settings and exemplifies the fundamental contribution of the central nervous system to the generation of pain hypersensitivity. Because central sensitization results from changes in the properties of neurons in the central nervous system, the pain is no longer coupled, as acute nociceptive pain is, to the presence, intensity, or duration of noxious peripheral stimuli. Instead, central sensitization produces pain hypersensitivity by changing the sensory response elicited by normal inputs, including those that usually evoke innocuous sensations. PERSPECTIVE: In this article, we review the major triggers that initiate and maintain central sensitization in healthy individuals in response to nociceptor input and in patients with inflammatory and neuropathic pain, emphasizing the fundamental contribution and multiple mechanisms of synaptic plasticity caused by changes in the density, nature, and properties of ionotropic and metabotropic glutamate receptors.
In essence we are talking about changes within the central nervous system that underpin the widespread, unpredictable and varied nature of persisting pain.
When I am listening to a patient, observing their movements and performing a ‘multi-system’ examination, I am in part looking for the pain mechanisms at play, including central sensitisation. Several of my questions are: ‘what is going on here to create this experience for the person in front of me?’, ‘why are the nervous and other systems responding in such a way?’ and ‘what is influencing the behaviour of those systems?’. I really need to know what it is that is prolonging this protection and is it really worthwhile for the individual.
Suspecting that there is a component of central sensitisation at play in many cases of chronic pain that I see, it is pleasing to see a group looking at this closely and finding evidence to support this thinking:
J Bone Joint Surg Br. 2011 Apr;93(4):498-502.
Evidence that central sensitisation is present in patients with shoulder impingement syndrome and influences the outcome after surgery.
Gwilym SE, Oag HC, Tracey I, Carr AJ.
Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences, Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, Windmill Road, Headington, Oxford OX3 7LD, UK. [email protected]
Impingement syndrome in the shoulder has generally been considered to be a clinical condition of mechanical origin. However, anomalies exist between the pathology in the subacromial space and the degree of pain experienced. These may be explained by variations in the processing of nociceptive inputs between different patients. We investigated the evidence for augmented pain transmission (central sensitisation) in patients with impingement, and the relationship between pre-operative central sensitisation and the outcomes following arthroscopic subacromial decompression. We recruited 17 patients with unilateral impingement of the shoulder and 17 age- and gender-matched controls, all of whom underwent quantitative sensory testing to detect thresholds for mechanical stimuli, distinctions between sharp and blunt punctate stimuli, and heat pain. Additionally Oxford shoulder scores to assess pain and function, and PainDETECT questionnaires to identify ‘neuropathic’ and referred symptoms were completed. Patients completed these questionnaires pre-operatively and three months post-operatively. A significant proportion of patients awaiting subacromial decompression had referred pain radiating down the arm and had significant hyperalgesia to punctate stimulus of the skin compared with controls (unpaired t-test, p < 0.0001). These are felt to represent peripheral manifestations of augmented central pain processing (central sensitisation). The presence of either hyperalgesia or referred pain pre-operatively resulted in a significantly worse outcome from decompression three months after surgery (unpaired t-test, p = 0.04 and p = 0.005, respectively). These observations confirm the presence of central sensitisation in a proportion of patients with shoulder pain associated with impingement. Also, if patients had relatively high levels of central sensitisation pre-operatively, as indicated by higher levels of punctate hyperalgesia and/or referred pain, the outcome three months after subacromial decompression was significantly worse.
Treat the brain, treat the pain
Arthritis Rheum. 2009 Sep 15;61(9):1226-34.
Psychophysical and functional imaging evidence supporting the presence of central sensitization in a cohort of osteoarthritis patients.
Gwilym SE, Keltner JR, Warnaby CE, Carr AJ, Chizh B, Chessell I, Tracey I.
University of Oxford, Oxford, UK. [email protected]
The groin pain experienced by patients with hip osteoarthritis (OA) is often accompanied by areas of referred pain and changes in skin sensitivity. We aimed to identify the supraspinal influences that underlie these clinical manifestations that we consider indicative of possible central sensitization.
Twenty patients with hip OA awaiting joint replacement and displaying signs of referred pain were recruited into the study, together with age-matched controls. All subjects completed pain psychology questionnaires and underwent quantitative sensory testing (QST) in their area of referred pain. Twelve of 20 patients and their age- and sex-matched controls underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while the areas of referred pain were stimulated using cold stimuli (12 degrees C) and punctate stimuli (256 mN). The remaining 8 of 20 patients underwent punctate stimulation only.
Patients were found to have significantly lower threshold perception to punctate stimuli and were hyperalgesic to the noxious punctate stimulus in their areas of referred pain. Functional brain imaging illustrated significantly greater activation in the brainstem of OA patients in response to punctate stimulation of their referred pain areas compared with healthy controls, and the magnitude of this activation positively correlated with the extent of neuropathic-like elements to the patient’s pain, as indicated by the PainDETECT score.
Using psychophysical (QST) and brain imaging methods (functional MRI), we have identified increased activity with the periaqueductal grey matter associated with stimulation of the skin in referred pain areas of patients with hip OA. This offers a central target for analgesia aimed at improving the treatment of this largely peripheral disease.