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J Pain. 2007 Mar;8(3):280-6. Epub 2006 Dec 4.

An illusion of proximal radiation of pain due to distally directed inhibition.

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Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, Center for the Study of Pharmacologic Plasticity in the Presence of Pain, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC 27157-1010, USA.


The perceived site of pain can frequently radiate from the site of tissue injury. However, the mechanisms supporting spatial aspects of cutaneous pain radiation remain poorly understood. Such mismatches between the actual location and the perceived location of stimuli are also found across other somatosensory modalities. During simultaneous innocuous stimulation at multiple sites, proximal stimuli are perceived as more intense than distal stimuli. To determine if pain radiates in a predominantly proximal direction, 20 subjects rated pain intensity from simultaneously applied pairs of noxious (49 degrees C) thermal stimuli. Proximal and distal stimuli were each rated separately. As the distance between probes was decreased, pain from the proximal site increased relative to that arising from the distal site. Comparisons between paired stimuli and single control (49 degrees C) stimuli revealed that pain arising from the distal stimulus site was inhibited. This distally directed inhibition produced an illusion that pain radiates in a proximal direction. The proximal radiation/distal inhibition of pain observed in the present investigation may represent a perceptual "copy" of neural information used to modulate withdrawal responses. Thus, supraspinally mediated responses to pain can be coordinated with spinally mediated withdrawal reflexes.


Radiation of pain is a perplexing clinical problem. The present findings indicate that the perceived location of pain may be shaped by inhibitory as well as facilitatory processes.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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