Peripheral and Central Sensitization of the Nervous System

When someone experiences chronic pelvic pain and dysfunction, his or her nervous system can enter into a state of constant overdrive. The firing rate of nerves increases and all of the patient’s senses are heightened, including the sense of pain. Things that may be mildly painful for most people can be extremely painful for chronic pain patients – even a light touch can cause pain.

According to Clifford Woolf, a leading pain researcher, pain itself actually can change the way the central nervous system works. The more pain a person feels (particularly chronic pain) the more sensitive they become. People can even feel more pain with less stimulation. Woolf calls this effect on the central nervous system “central sensitization.” He says that, for these people, pain also can “echo,” meaning that the pain takes longer to ease.

Other Signs of Central Sensitization

Central sensitization can cause people to be sensitive in other ways in addition to pain. They can become sensitive to light, sounds or odors. They can become emotionally sensitive, and a constant state of anxiety is not uncommon. Central sensitization is also associated with poor concentration and short-term memory problems.

Causes of Central Sensitization

The causes of central sensitization can include stroke and spinal cord injury, but it can be involved in many chronic pain disorders, from low back pain, neck pain, tension headaches and migraines to arthritis and fibromyalgia. Sensitization may also be involved in a number of conditions affecting the pelvic region such as endometriosis and irritable bowel diseases, among others.

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