Original Paper

NeuroMolecular Medicine

, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp 141-147

First online:

The Sympathetic Nervous System and Pain

  • Tanja SchlerethAffiliated withDepartment of Neurology, Johannes Gutenberg-University
  • , Frank BirkleinAffiliated withDepartment of Neurology, Johannes Gutenberg-University Email author 

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The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and pain interact on many levels of the neuraxis. In healthy subjects, activation of the SNS in the brain usually suppresses pain mainly by descending inhibition of nociceptive transmission in the spinal cord. Furthermore, some experimental data even suggest that the SNS might control peripheral inflammation and nociceptive activation. However, even subtle changes in pathophysiology can dramatically change the effect of SNS on pain, and vice versa. In the periphery, inflammation or nociceptive activation is enhanced, spinal descending inhibition is reversed to spinal facilitation, and finally the awareness of all these changes will induce anxiety, which furthermore amplifies pain perception, affects pain behavior, and depresses mood. Unraveling the detailed molecular mechanisms of how this interaction of SNS and pain is established in health and disease will help us to treat pain more successfully in the future.


Sympathetic nervous system Nociception Descending inhibition Neurogenic inflammation Complex Regional Pain Syndrome