Migraine Term of the Day: Nociception

Patient Expert & Health Professional
Medically Reviewed

Writer’s note: Some of you have expressed an interest in learning more of the medical terminology that comes up when discussing Migraine disease and other headache disorders. So, I’ve joined Teri in posting a “term of the day,” on a regular basis.

When we’re looking at migraine and headache information, whether it’s from our doctor, a book, or an online article, we sometimes come across medical terms that can be confusing. Sometimes, it’s easy enough to substitute another word or a short phrase for the medical term. At other times, substituting just doesn’t convey quite the same meaning or takes more than a few words.

Nociception is one of those terms. We see it in medical journal articles that discuss the pathophysiology of Migraine. It’s an important term for patients with Migraine to understand, especially for those trying to stay current on the latest in Migraine research.


Nociception is the biological process of receiving input from our environment, transmitting and interpreting that signal as pain. It involves a four-step process that includes:

  1. Transduction occurs when the nervous system receives a signal from a stimulus. In the case of Migraine, this could start when we are exposed to a trigger
  2. Transmission is the movement of that signal through the nervous system via nociceptors (receptors that transmit pain signals).
  3. Modulation occurs as the signal passes through the hypothalamus. Think of this as your brain’s translation service. Pain perception only occurs when the brain translates the signal in certain ways.
  4. Perception of pain occurs when specific signals, translated in specific ways, reaches the cortex where it communicates the message we perceive as pain.

Nociception is the neurological process that results in our perception of pain. The brain doesn’t actually feel pain. Instead, it transmits the signals necessary for us to perceive pain. Those of us with Migraine have over-reactive, sensitized nociceptors. When exposed to just the right stimuli (trigger), our nervous system activates this pain transmission, interpretation, and perception of pain.

Here’s an example of how it’s used in a sentence:

Exposure of subjects to a heat stimulus triggers nociception which was measured using experimental electroencephalogram (EEG).

Nociception can be measured by experimental EEG results using animal models. In this way, researchers can track the path of nervous system activity that occurs before, during, after, and between Migraine attacks. Studying nociception has resulted in important advances in Migraine science by increasing our:

  • understanding of how triggers are processed and interpreted by the nervous system
  • identification of nervous system structures involved in pain processing
  • understanding how cortical spreading depression activates nociception
  • identification of key factors that affect nervous system sensitivity
  • identification of targets for future treatments

See more helpful articles:

Migraine Medical Terms Glossary Index

Migraine Term of the Day: Pathophysiology

Migraine Term of the Day: Neurotransmitter

Migraine Term of the Day: Neuropeptide

Migraine Term of the Day: Hyperalgesia