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How The Gate Control Theory of Pain Closes the Door on Dental Pain

Posted on Jun 25, 2012 by DentalVibe
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How The Gate Control Theory of Pain Closes the Door on Dental Pain

Don't leave the gate open. Your mother was right... your house isn't a barn, and your body isn't either. Close the door! But who knew that her simple household rule would also apply to... dentists? Well, it does. In fact, mom's gate rule is the very reason dentists are now able to offer their services pain free. 

It's called "The Gate Control Theory of Pain." It was actually first proposed back in 1965 by Dr.'s Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall, and it basically works like this: There is a "gate" that opens from the spine to the brain. Close that gate, and pain can't pass through it! That's Gate Control Theory in a nutshell. 

An Anatomy Lesson: Finding Your Body's Pain Gate

So where exactly is this gate? It's located within the dorsal horn of the spinal cord  (sometimes also called the "posterior cornu" or "posterior horn"). In humans, the word "dorsal" just indicates that we're talking about an area toward the backside of your body, as opposed to your front or face-side. Your dorsal horn receives and regulates certain sensations, like vibration, hunger, light touch, and most notably... pain.

Yes, pain. That thing we'd all like to avoid, especially at the dentist. And guess what- we can avoid it. Just think: if our spine's dorsal horn is allowing pain to reach our brains, wouldn't closing the dorsal horn essentially "close the gate" on pain? That's exactly the idea underlying Gate Control Theory. 

"Gate Control": How to Keep the Gate Open for Good Feelings but Close it on Dental Pain

A well-operated gate can let some things in while keeping others out. Often, it's first come, first serve. That's the science of "gate control." And while we may not be able to completely turn off the dorsal horn, we can certainly distract it.

Fortunately, pain is not the fastest-moving sensation out there, which means  other sensations can reach our spine more quickly. If we send a really fast sensation at the same time as pain, the quicker signal can beat pain to the punch, arriving at the dorsal horn just in time to close the gate on pain's more sluggish arrival. 

Vibration: The Secret Key to "The Gate Control Theory of Pain"

So what moves faster than pain? Vibration, for one thing. Did you know that the signal for pain moves through our nerves at only 2 meters per second, while vibration shoots through them at a speedy 75 meters per second, nearly thirty-eight times as fast? That's quite a difference!

When vibration and pain occur at the same time, the vibration reaches the sensory area of the brain first. The vibration also triggers the release of inhibitory signals that travel back to the spine and prevent the gate from opening to pain in the first place. 

Steven Goldberg, D.D.S, first started thinking about the challenges of painful dental injection when he was a student at the New York University Dental School in the 1980s, and he began to explore how The Gate Control Theory of Pain might be used to render dental injections pain free. 

That line of thought eventually led to his invention of DentalVibe, a patented and FDA-approved injection comfort system that allows for truly pain-free dentistry. Using VibraPulse technology, DentalVibe essentially applies The Gate Control Theory of Pain to dental injections, producing vibration signals that soothe patients and close their gates to pain. Who knew pain-free dentistry could be so simple? Well, besides your mother.

Had you heard of The Gate Control Theory of Pain before?

Are you surprised by how simple it seems when you boil it down to the basics?

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