Why Is Your First Instinct After Hurting Your Finger to Put It in Your Mouth?

iStock
iStock

If you close your fingers in a car door or slam your funny bone into a wall, you might find your first reaction is to suck on your fingers or rub your elbow. Not only is this an instinctive self-soothing behavior, it's a pretty effective technique for temporarily calming pain signals to the brain.

But how and why does it work? To understand, you need to know about the dominant theory of how pain is communicated in the body.

In the 17th century, French scientist and philosopher René Descartes proposed that there were specific pain receptors in the body that "rang a bell in the brain" when a stimulus interacted with the body, Lorne Mendell, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Stony Brook University in New York, tells Mental Floss. However, no study has effectively been able to identify receptors anywhere in the body that only respond to painful stimuli.

"You can activate certain nerve fibers that can lead to pain, but under other circumstances, they don't," Mendell says. In other words, the same nerve fibers that carry pain signals also carry other sensations.

In 1965, two researchers at MIT, Patrick Wall and Ronald Melzack, proposed what they called the gate control theory of pain, which, for the most part, holds up to this day. Mendell, whose research focuses on the neurobiology of pain and who worked with both men on their pain studies, explains that their research showed that feeling pain is more about a balance of stimuli on the different types of nerve fibers.

"The idea was that certain fibers that increased the input were ones that opened the gate, and the ones that reduced the input closed the gate," Mendell says. "So you have this idea of a gate control sitting across the entrance of the spinal cord, and that could either be open and produce pain, or the gate could be shut and reduce pain."

The gate control theory was fleshed out in 1996 when neurophysiologist Edward Perl discovered that cells contain nociceptors, which are neurons that signal the presence of tissue-damaging stimuli or the existence of tissue damage.

Of the two main types of nerve fibers—large and small—the large fibers carry non-nociceptive information (no pain), while small fibers transmit nociceptive information (pain).

Mendell explains that in studies where electric stimulation is applied to nerves, as the current is raised, the first fibers to be stimulated are the largest ones. As the intensity of the stimulus increases, smaller and smaller fibers get recruited in. "When you do this in a patient at low intensity, the patient will recognize the stimulus, but it will not be painful," he says. "But when you increase the intensity of the stimulus, eventually you reach threshold where suddenly the patient will say, 'This is painful.'"

Thus, "the idea was that shutting the gate was something that the large fibers produced, and opening the gate was something that the small fibers produced."

Now back to your pain. When you suck on a jammed finger or rub a banged shin, you're stimulating the large fibers with "counter irritation," Mendell says. The effect is "a decrease in the message, or the magnitude of the barrage of signals being driven across the incoming fiber activation. You basically shut the gate. That is what reduces pain."

This concept has created "a big industry" around treating pain with mild electrical stimulation, Mendell says, with the goal of stimulating those large fibers in the hopes they will shut the gate on the pain signals from the small fibers.

While counter irritation may not help dull the pain of serious injury, it may come in handy the next time you experience a bad bruise or a stubbed toe.

Whiten Your Teeth From Home for $40 With This Motorized Toothbrush

AquaSonic
AquaSonic

Since many people aren't exactly rushing to see their dentist during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's become more important than ever to find the best at-home products to maintain your oral hygiene. And if you're looking for a high-quality motorized toothbrush, you can take advantage of this deal on the AquaSonic Black Series model, which is currently on sale for 71 percent off.

This smart toothbrush can actually tell you how long to keep the brush in one place to get the most thorough cleaning—and that’s just one of the ways it can remove more plaque than an average toothbrush. The brush also features multiple modes that can whiten teeth, adjust for sensitive teeth, and massage your gums for better blood flow.

As you’d expect from any smart device, modern technology doesn’t stop at functionality. The design of the AquaSonic Black Series is sleek enough to seamlessly fit in with a modern aesthetic, and the charging base is cordless so it’s easy to bring on the go. The current deal even includes a travel case and eight Dupont replacement heads.

Right now, you can find the AquaSonic Black Series toothbrush on sale for just $40.

Price subject to change.

 

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.


7 Facts About the Hurricane Highway

Hurricane Earl (top) and Hurricane Fiona (bottom) pummel the U.S. coast and Caribbean islands.
Hurricane Earl (top) and Hurricane Fiona (bottom) pummel the U.S. coast and Caribbean islands.
NOAA/NASA GOES Project // Public Domain

Autumn is the peak of hurricane season, also known as Cape Verde season, after the islands where the so-called "hurricane highway" originates. Here are seven facts about this awesome—and sometimes deadly—weather phenomenon.

1. The hurricane highway begins near the African coast.

The Cape Verde Islands, located off the northwest coast of Africa, are where the hurricane highway starts. Thunderstorms destined to become hurricanes often form into a tropical depression near the islands, slowly organizing and strengthening over the following week as the system moves toward the Caribbean. These storms have a long time to get their act together, but they also have to cover a lot of distance without losing their power to reach the East Coast as a hurricane. Some storms are able to thrive with little wind shear, ample warm water, and moist air, while others starve and dissipate if they encounter cooler waters and strong winds, or ingest dry, dusty air blowing off the Sahara Desert.

2. An easterly jet stream gives rise to the hurricane highway.

It’s hard to imagine from North America that a couple of thunderstorms on another continent thousands of miles away can swirl up into a monstrous storm, but it happens almost every year. The extreme temperature gradient between the blistering heat of the Sahara Desert and the more temperate climate of the savanna to its south creates an easterly jet stream that triggers clusters of showers and thunderstorms. These clouds then move from east to west, emerging off the western African coast near the Cape Verde Islands. Every year, the right conditions turn a handful of these localized storms into tropical storms that make their way across the Atlantic.

3. The biggest hurricanes start with the smallest storms on the hurricane highway.

Infrared image of Hurricane Andrew
Hurricane Andrew was a Category 5 hurricane when it made landfall in Homestead, Florida.
Xanxz/NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons—these are all names for the same force of nature, like Hurricane Andrew, which hit the East Coast in 1992. Cyclones like Andrew don’t just form out of thin air. All tropical cyclones require a relatively tiny “nucleus” of thunderstorms in order to develop. When the air and water temperatures are right, these groups of thunderstorms sometimes spin up into a fierce low-pressure system capable of causing a lot of damage. We see lots of these seedling thunderstorms over the ocean every year, but only a small number of them become hurricanes.

4. Hurricanes form in different places in different months.

Where a tropical storm or hurricane begins its trip across the ocean depends on what time of the year it forms. Storms that form early in the season usually get their start from thunderstorms or cold fronts that stall over the water very close to land; almost all of the storms that form in the Atlantic in June come to life within a few hundred miles of land. When we reach the peak of hurricane season, though, they start to form farther and farther out in the ocean—all the way out to the shores of Africa.

5. Fall is the peak of hurricane season on the hurricane highway.

Hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean runs from June 1 through November 30. Storms are most common during that six-month stretch of the year, but sometimes they can form earlier or later too. That said, the period between the middle of August and the middle of October is typically the climatological peak of the season. That’s because, as the ocean water gets warmer, the atmosphere becomes conducive to vigorous storms, increasing the risk for hurricanes and tropical storms.

6. Cape Verde hurricanes can easily land in the record books.

Hurricane tracks over time

Tropical waves traveling west from the coast of Africa in the middle of the summer are the culprits behind some of the worst hurricanes we’ve experienced in the United States. For example, on August 8, 2005, a small tropical wave emerged off the coast of Africa, soon becoming Tropical Depression 10. That depression would fall apart a few days later, but its remnants kept moving toward the U.S., redeveloping into a new tropical depression over the Bahamas on August 23. That new tropical depression became Hurricane Katrina, the costliest hurricane to ever strike the United States.

It’s a similar story for many—but not all—major hurricanes in recent history. Hurricanes Andrew, Dennis, Ivan, Isabel, and Ike were all Cape Verde–type storms that sprang to life thousands of miles away from where they would ultimately wreak havoc.

7. Strong hurricanes can still form in other places in autumn.

While the far eastern part of the Atlantic Ocean is a hotbed of activity this time of the year, it’s not the only place you need to watch if you live near the coast. Storms that form close to land can quickly spin themselves into catastrophe. Hurricane Sandy formed just south of Jamaica and hit New Jersey in a matter of days in 2012. A tropical depression that developed east of Florida on September 18, 2005, exploded into Hurricane Rita just three days later, with 180 mph winds—the most intense storm ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meteorologists are currently predicting an above-average hurricane season in 2020. It may be worth preparing: NOAA suggests gathering a few key disaster supplies to have on hand, getting an insurance check-up, and locating the safest high ground.