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Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. Chronic pain, with a prevalence of 20–30 % is the major cause of human suffering worldwide, because effective, specific and safe therapies have yet to be developed. It is unevenly distributed among sexes, with women experiencing more pain and suffering. Chronic pain can be anatomically and phenomenologically dissected intothree separable but interacting pathways, a lateral ‘painfulness’ pathway, a medial ‘suffering’ pathway and a descending pain inhibitory pathway. One may have pain(fullness) without suffering and suffering without pain(fullness).

Pain sensation leads to suffering via a cognitive, emotional and autonomic processing, and is expressed as anger, fear, frustration, anxiety and depression. The medial pathway overlaps with the salience and stress networks, explaining that behavioural relevance or meaning determines the suffering associated with painfulness. Genetic and epigenetic influences trigger chronic neuroinflammatory changes which are involved in transitioning from acute to chronic pain. Based on the concept of the Bayesian brain, pain (and suffering) can be regarded as the consequence of an imbalance between the two ascending and the descending pain inhibitory pathways under control of the reward system.

The therapeutic clinical implications of this simple pain model are obvious. After categorizing the working mechanisms of each of the available treatments (pain killers, psychopharmacology, psychotherapy, neuromodulation, psychosurgery, spinal cord stimulation) to 1 or more of the 3 pathways, a rational combination can be proposed of activating the descending pain inhibitory pathway in combination with inhibition of the medial and lateral pathway, so as to rebalance the pain (and suffering) pathways.

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