What is the Pain Gate Control Theory?

Pain gate control theory, also known as simply “gate control theory,” is something anyone with chronic pain should learn and understand. Since pain is complex and everyone deals with it in their own unique way, any form of relief is better than nothing. We're going to delve deep into the pain gate control theory, what it is and how it works to help you better manage your pain.

What is the Pain Gate Control Theory?

what is the pain gate control theory woman with a questioning look on her face

Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall outlined the theory in 1965, and it has since been a topic of discussion for anyone studying pain.

Pain is complex, and if you think about it, there are times when:

  • You focus on the pain, and it skyrockets
  • You're hyper-focused on something else, and the pain subsides

You may have heard of stories where someone was gravely injured, and they didn’t even realize the extent of their injuries for quite some time. For example, you’ll find old stories of war veterans that were shot in combat, and they kept on fighting and didn’t even realize that they were shot in battle until after they were out of the chaos.

Gate control theory relates to these moments because the pain must exist, but for some reason, these individuals can “gate” their pain.

What Controls Pain and These “Gates?”

Your spinal cord attaches to the nerves in your body. If you can, imagine the spinal cord with nerves spreading to every inch of your body. Now, imagine that there are gates that allow the passage of pain signals between the nerves and the spinal cord.

Sometimes, these gates remain wide open, allowing you to instantly feel pain to its fullest extent.

However, if the gates are only partially open, fewer pain signals can flow through the nervous system, reducing the pain that you experience.

Pain gate control theory works to keep these gates less open when you’re in pain so that the pain is more manageable.

How Pain Gate Control Theory Works

Based on the gate control theory, there are:

  • Factors that open gates
  • Factors that close gates

If you’re better able to close the gates that are sending pain signals, you’ll theoretically have the ability to ease the pain that you’re experiencing.

Factors That Open Pain Gates

Keeping pain gates wide open leads to worse pain. And if you look at these points, there’s a good chance that you’ll agree with the three main reasons pain gates seem to open:

  1. Stress and tension are the most common reason for pain. Tension has a way of opening up pain gates. And if you feel any of the following, your pain gates are probably wide open: anger, depression, worry, and anxiousness.
  2. Mental factors, with special attention to focusing on the pain, can lead to more pain. In fact, this goes directly to our next point.
  3. Boredom and lack of activity. It's nice to sit back and relax after a long, difficult day. But a lack of activity seems to amplify pain. Stiff joints, achy muscles, and a lack of activity may be contributing to your pain severity.

Factors That Close Pain Gates

what is the pain gate control theory woman laying on the couch relaxing to help pain

Closing your pain gates may not stop the pain completely, but you’ll be better able to manage it. A few of the factors that go into closing your pain gates include:

  1. Relaxation helps ease the pain. If you’re feeling happy and optimistic, it seems to close the pain gates that are exasperating your pain.
  2. Mental fortitude can help. Many people find that being actively involved and engrossed in an activity helps close these gates. For example, reading a book or being immersed in work closes pain gates.
  3. Exercise, focusing on activities that don’t aggravate injuries, can help close pain gates, too.

You may also find that some counter-stimulation methods work to close your pain gates. For example, acupuncture or heat therapy may help close the pain gates that are affecting you the most.

How to Begin Using the Pain Gate Control Theory to Stop Pain

If you want to begin closing your pain gates and find some form of comfort, you need to take the right approach. A few things that you’ll want to try to ease your pain are:


If you’re tight, tense, and anxious, you’re going to make your pain even worse. You must find ways to relax and ease your pain. Since everyone is different, relaxing for you may mean curling up with a good book or taking a walk in the woods and enjoying the serenity of nature.

Focus on Anything But the Pain

First and foremost, focus on anything but the pain that you’re feeling. You can listen to an eBook, take an online course or immerse yourself in anything else that may help ease the pain that you’re experiencing.


The right mix of exercise can help decrease your pain. While guidelines suggest 150 minutes of exercise a week, you can do as much as your condition allows. For some people, they can only do 15 minutes of activity per day due to their condition, and this is perfectly fine. The key is to simply stay as active as you can.

You can and should learn to control your pain using any method that works for you. In addition to the recommendations above, you can use counter-stimulation techniques, such as massage therapy or a heating pad, to try and close your pain gates.

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