Central control of visceral pain and urinary tract function

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Afferent input from Aδ and C-fibres innervating the urinary bladder are processed differently by the brain, and have different roles in signaling bladder sensation. Aδ fibres that signal bladder filling activate a spino-bulbo-spinal loop, which relays in the midbrain periaqueductal grey (PAG) and pontine micturition centre (PMC). The excitability of this circuitry is regulated by tonic GABAergic inhibitory processes. In humans and socialised animals micturition is normally under volitional control and influenced by a host of psychosocial factors. Higher nervous decision-making in a social context to 'go now' or 'do not go' probably resides in frontal cortical areas, which act as a central control switch for micturition. Exposure to psychosocial stress can have profoundly disruptive influence on the process and lead to maladaptive changes in the bladder. During sleeping the voiding reflex threshold appears to be reset to a higher level to promote urinary continence.

Under physiological conditions C-fibre bladder afferents are normally silent but are activated in inflammatory bladder states and by intense distending pressure. Following prolonged stimulation visceral nociceptors sensitise, leading to a lowered threshold and heightened sensitivity. In addition, sensitization may occur within the central pain processing circuitry, which outlasts the original nociceptive insult. Visceral nociception may also be influenced by genetic and environmental influences. A period of chronic stress can produce increased sensitivity to visceral pain that lasts for months. Adverse early life events can produce even longer lasting epigenetic changes, which increase the individual's susceptibility to developing visceral pain states in adulthood.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)35-42
Number of pages8
JournalAutonomic Neuroscience: Basic and Clinical
Early online date6 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016

Bibliographical note

Special issue: Autonomic nervous control of the urinary tract


  • Micturition
  • Central nervous control
  • Visceral pain
  • Bladder


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