The nervous system does have natural responses that can ease minor pains, like the sting of a scrape or ache of a bump. When you were a child and trying to learn to roller-skate, perhaps you once fell and skinned your knee. To stop your tears, Mama may have given you a kiss, rubbed the area around the injured flesh, cleaned up the wound, and given you a bandage to show off to your friends. Miraculously, you felt better.

Turns out it was no miracle. Mama really did know best According to research published in the 1960s about the so-called gate control theory of pain, stimulation of the injured skin through rubbing temporarily overwhelms the brain. These tactile sensations send a second set of sensations along the bundles of nerve fibers whose neighbors are already sending pain signals to the brain. As the brain doesn’t have the ability to entirely focus on multiple tactile sensations at once, the second set of sensations (the mother’s touch) lowers the perceived intensity of the first set (the skinned knee). The gateway to pain closes a bit. Researchers call this competitive inhibition.


Rubbing also results in the release of natural painkillers that act like opiates. They interact with receptors in the synapses of the amygdala and hypothalamus. Those collections of neurons, in turn, send signals via the medulla and spinal cord to offset the afferent pain signals from the nociceptors. The result: a decrease in the transmission of pain sensations. That’s great for a skinned knee. But what if the pain is more acute, or even life-threatening?

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