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The Pain Gate Theory

Man rubbing Doctor Hoy’s topical analgesic on elbow

What is the Gate Control Theory of Pain?

Have you ever tripped and hurt your knee and found that rubbing it made it hurt less? This can be explained by the gate control theory of pain. This theory suggests that pain is in the brain, and that we may have some control over the pain we do and do not feel.

Doctor Hoy’s® is a topical analgesic that uses the gate control theory to help relieve both acute and chronic pain. Keep reading to find out what the pain gate theory is, how it works, and how you can use it to help curb your pain.

Man using Doctor Hoy’s Pain Relief Roll-On Gel to stop ankle pain


In this article, you will find:

What is an Example of the Pain Gate Theory?

Woman sitting on couch holding her knee in pain

The pain gate theory can be a complex neurological theory of pain best introduced by example:

It’s Monday morning and you overslept – again. You’re supposed to be at the office in 15 minutes. You’re tired, stressed, and worried that another late day at work might look bad to the boss. As you hurry to get out of bed, get dressed, and grab your coffee, your big toe smacks right into the bed post.


Burning, throbbing pain sears at your toe and you drop to the ground to clutch it tight.

This is not what you needed. Not when you’re already late! A minute or two goes by and you release your toe. The pain has subsided, and you are free to walk out the door and leave for work.

Congratulations, you’ve just used the pain gate theory to manage your stubbed toe. Other gate control theory of pain examples include rubbing your temples for a headache, kissing your child’s booboo, and applying pressure to a paper cut.

Sensations like rubbing, pressure, or hot/cold application restrict the amount of pain you feel, closing the “gate” on painful stimuli. All this happens in your brain as part of the gate theory of pain control.

Pain & The Brain

Xray image of the nerves in the brain and the spinal cord

Our brains control whether our bodies feel pain or not. Pain is a safety mechanism used to warn the brain whether we are in danger. Not all pain is external, like a stubbed toe. Some painful stimuli are internal and chronic, like arthritis or fibromyalgia. Some experts believe the gate control theory can help people with chronic pain by restricting how it is felt in the brain.

Nerve endings travel throughout your body to your spinal cord and your brain, sending signals and messages along neural pathways. If you stub your toe, an impulse travels from the toe to your brain, and your brain interprets what happened based on the message, where you are, and previous experiences. With this information, your brain tells you that your toe is in pain.

The gate control theory also recognizes psychological factors that affect why and how you feel pain. Pain can either be exacerbated or relieved by:

  • Thoughts: Thoughts influence how we perceive pain. Positive thinking can cause a person to have less pain than someone who is ruminating on the hurt.
  • Emotions: Fear, anxiety, stress, and depression are all emotions that can make a painful experience, like stubbing your toe, seem worse than it really is.
  • Memories: Previous experiences related to painful stimuli can affect how you feel pain.
  • Context: Getting hurt during a sports game versus getting hurt at practice might feel different because of where you are and what’s going on in the moment.
  • Expectations: Expecting something to hurt, like getting your flu shot, makes the brain more likely to interpret it as painful.

NSAIDs vs Gate Control Theory

Orange bottle of white pills spilling onto table

Many people use NSAIDs to control their pain. While pain relieving drugs change how the body processes and perceives pain, their chemical effect may become less when used too much or used overtime, such is the case with opioids.

In the gate control theory, non-painful stimuli like pressure, massage, or use of a natural analgesic like Doctor Hoy’s send the brain stronger signals than sensations of pain. The brain focuses on the stronger signal and ignores the first one, or the painful stimulus.

While we may not be in full control of the messages our brain receives, the gate theory of pain control suggests that we do have the power to mediate those messages. The brain can be trained to ignore certain forms of pain when we restrict them using a nonpainful sensation.

The Pain Gate Theory in Simple Terms

The gate control theory of pain suggests that non-painful sensations can block pain signals from reaching the brain and reduce the amount of pain we feel.

Formulated in 1965, the pain gate theory proposes that nerves in the spinal cord act as gates that either allow or restrict pain signals from reaching the brain. These “gates” can be closed using soothing sensations like rubbing, thus restricting or reducing how much pain you feel.

Painful stimuli, or something that hurts such as a bee sting, transmit through small neural pathways to your spinal cord where neurons decide to send these signals to your brain stem and, finally, your brain. This is when you feel pain. These small neural pathways are comparably slow.

Diagram of painful stimuli going to the spinal cord, brain stem, and brain

Rubbing the bee sting emits a nonpainful stimuli that transmits through larger, faster neural pathways. They reach the neurons in the spinal cord sooner, telling them to close the “gate” on the painful stimuli, and so they do. The nonpainful stimuli reach the brain and reduce how much pain you feel. In other words:

  • An open gate allows pain signals to reach the brain. People with chronic pain have gates that stay open even when they should be closed.
  • A closed gate keeps pain signals from continuing to reach the brain, reducing the amount of pain you feel.

Using the Gate Control Theory for Pain Relief

Healthcare professionals use the gate control theory to help patients with chronic pain manage their symptoms. There are a variety of treatment options including chiropractic therapy for back pain, nerve block injections for neuropathy, exercise, massage therapy, and more.

Chiropractor placing hands on a patient’s head and shoulder 

Electrical stimulation of the nerves is another treatment method for chronic pain known as TENS, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. An electric current stimulates the nerves, sending a pleasant sensation through the pain gate and closing the gate on painful stimuli.

The pain gate theory is also used to explain how topical analgesics like Doctor Hoy’s work to relieve pain.

Doctor Hoy’s & The Pain Gate Theory

Doctor Hoy’s uses effective, natural ingredients like menthol and camphor to provide fast-acting, long-lasting pain relief for muscle aches, back aches, joint pain, arthritis, and more.

Diagram showing how Doctor Hoy’s closes the pain gate at the spinal cord

Doctor Hoy’s Pain Relief Gel contains menthol which creates a cooling sensation. When applied to the skin, it activates the sensory nerves with a nonpainful stimuli that closes the pain gate and reduces how much pain you feel. Combined with the lasting effects of natural camphor, Doctor Hoy’s keeps the gate closed for longer, leaving you pain free for hours.

Our pain relieving gel also features natural ingredients like arnica and witch hazel that reduce swelling in addition to blocking pain receptors. For faster healing of bruises, scrapes, and sprains, Arnica Boost Recovery Cream is a natural topical ointment that fights inflammation and promotes healing. Relieve pain and heal sooner when you use Doctor Hoy’s Pain Relief Gel and Arnica Boost Recovery Cream.

Gate Pain Control as a Theory

Everyone experiences pain differently depending on their past, emotions, thoughts, and more. The pain gate theory is just that, a theory. Therefore, pain relief looks different for, say, a child on the playground versus a patient in hospice. However, theories of pain control can help us understand why we hurt and what we can do about it, especially in cases of chronic pain.


Pain and the Brain: What Is the Gate Control Theory? (2022, September 21). Cleveland Clinic.

Gate Control Theory of Pain. (n.d.). Physiopedia.

Wendt, T. (2022, August 8). What Is the Gate Control Theory of Pain? WebMD.

Sears, B. (2019, December 12). Understanding the Pain Gate Control Theory. Verywell Health.

Craighead, D. H., & Alexander, L. M. (2016). Topical menthol increases cutaneous blood flow. Microvascular Research, 107, 39–45.

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