That same dispersion of forces continues once pain messages
reach the central nervous system. Suppose you touch a hot stove.
Some incoming pain signals are immediately routed to nerve cells
that signal muscles to contract, so you pull your hand back.
That streamlined pathway is a reflex, one of many protective
circuits wired into your nervous system at birth.
Meanwhile the message informing you that you've touched the
stove travels along other pathways to higher centers in the
brain. One path is an express route that reports the facts:
where it hurts; how bad it is; whether the pain is sharp or
burning. Other pain pathways plod along more slowly, the nerve
fibers branching to make connections with many nerve cells
(neurons) en route. Scientists think that these more meandering
pathways act as warning systems alerting you of impending damage
and in other ways filling out the pain picture. All the pathways
combined contribute to the emotional impact of pain -- whether you
feel frightened, anxious, angry, annoyed. Experts called those
feelings the "suffering" component of pain.
Still other branches of the pain news network are alerting
another major division of the nervous system, the autonomic
nervous system. That division handles the body's vital functions
like breathing, blood flow, pulse rate, digestion, elimination.
Pain can sound a general alarm in that system, causing you to
sweat or stop digesting your food, increasing your pulse rate and
blood pressure, dilating the pupils of your eye, and signaling
the release of hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline).
Epinephrine aids and abets all those responses as well as
triggering the release of sugar stored in the liver to provide an
extra boost of energy in an emergency.
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