Channelopathies and Chronic Pain

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Channelopathies are a diverse group of disorders caused by dysfunction of ion channels due to genetic mutations or acquired factors. These ion channels play crucial roles in maintaining the proper functioning of cells by regulating the flow of ions across cell membranes. Channelopathies can affect various tissues and organ systems, leading to a wide range of clinical manifestations, including chronic pain, in particular neuropathic pain.

Common Features

The monogenic channelopathies almost all have the following features

  1. Symptoms occur as transient attacks separated by prolonged periods of normal function
  2. Familial inheritance is autosomal dominant for most channelopathies, with asymptomatic carriage being rare
  3. The clinical phenotype is usually restricted to a single organ (e.g. muscle or brain) due to tissue specific expression of channel isoforms.
  4. Different mutations in the same gene can cause different clinical syndromes because of the different mutational effects


See also: Basic Neurophysiology


Ion channels are integral membrane proteins that selectively allow the passage of ions, such as sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca2+), and chloride (Cl-) across cell membranes. These channels are critical for maintaining cellular homeostasis, generating electrical signals, and regulating various cellular processes. Ion channels can be classified into two major categories based on their activation mechanism:

  1. Voltage-gated ion channels: These channels open or close in response to changes in membrane potential. Voltage-gated channels play a crucial role in the generation and propagation of action potentials in neurons, including nociceptors, which are sensory neurons responsible for detecting noxious stimuli and initiating pain signals.
  2. Ligand-gated ion channels: Also known as ionotropic receptors, these channels open or close upon binding of specific ligands, such as neurotransmitters, hormones, or other extracellular molecules. Ligand-gated channels are involved in synaptic transmission and modulating neuronal excitability, thus playing a role in the processing and modulation of pain signals in the nervous system.

Pain Perception

Both voltage-gated and ligand-gated ion channels contribute to the complex process of pain perception and transmission, making them potential targets for therapeutic intervention in chronic pain conditions.

Ion channels are essential components of the nociceptive system, contributing to the initiation, propagation, and modulation of pain signals. The role of ion channels in pain perception and transmission can be broadly categorized into three main stages:

  1. Transduction: This process involves the conversion of noxious stimuli into electrical signals by nociceptors, which are specialized sensory neurons responsible for detecting harmful or potentially harmful stimuli. Ion channels, particularly transient receptor potential (TRP) channels, play a crucial role in transduction by responding to various physical and chemical stimuli, such as temperature, pressure, and inflammatory mediators.
  2. Conduction: Following transduction, the generated electrical signals (action potentials) need to be propagated along the nociceptive neurons towards the central nervous system (CNS) for further processing. Voltage-gated ion channels, including sodium (NaV) and potassium (KV) channels, are critical for the generation and propagation of action potentials in nociceptors.
  3. Transmission and modulation: Pain signals are transmitted between neurons at synapses, where neurotransmitters are released and bind to ligand-gated ion channels on the postsynaptic neuron. The transmission and modulation of pain signals in the spinal cord and brain involve a complex interplay between excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters and their respective receptors, such as NMDA, AMPA, and GABA receptors. Voltage-gated calcium channels (CaV) also play a key role in this process, as they regulate neurotransmitter release and contribute to the excitability of neurons involved in pain processing.

Key Channels in Pain

Various ion channels have been identified as critical players in the development and maintenance of chronic pain. Dysfunction or dysregulation of these channels can contribute to the pathophysiology of pain conditions. The following are key ion channels with established roles in chronic pain:

  1. Voltage-gated sodium channels (NaV): NaV channels are essential for the initiation and propagation of action potentials in neurons, including nociceptors. Specific subtypes, such as NaV1.7, NaV1.8, and NaV1.9, are predominantly expressed in nociceptive neurons and have been implicated in inherited and acquired pain syndromes. Dysfunction of these channels can lead to hyperexcitability or hypoexcitability of nociceptors, resulting in altered pain perception.
  2. Voltage-gated potassium channels (KV): KV channels are crucial for repolarization and regulation of action potential firing in neurons. Dysfunction or altered expression of certain KV channel subtypes, such as KV7 and KV10, can result in abnormal neuronal excitability and contribute to pain conditions like peripheral neuropathy and migraine.
  3. Voltage-gated calcium channels (CaV): CaV channels regulate calcium influx into neurons and play a critical role in neurotransmitter release and neuronal excitability. Dysfunction of specific CaV channel subtypes, such as CaV2.1 and CaV2.2, has been associated with pain conditions like familial hemiplegic migraine and spinal cord injury-induced pain.
  4. Transient receptor potential (TRP) channels: TRP channels are a family of non-selective cation channels involved in the transduction of various noxious stimuli, such as temperature, pressure, and inflammatory mediators. Dysfunction or dysregulation of TRP channels, particularly TRPV1 and TRPA1, has been implicated in inflammatory and neuropathic pain.



Clinical features of human disorders caused by mutations in ion-channel genes leading to altered pain perception.[1]
Condition Mutated gene (protein) Type and effect of mutation Main phenotype Additional features
Congenital insensitivity to pain SCN9A (Nav1.7) Biallelic, null No pain; other somatosensory modalities normal Anosmia
Hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathy type IID SCN9A (Nav1.7) Biallelic, null No pain; autonomic features include hypohidrosis; nerve-conduction studies show abnormalities Anosmia (variable)
Congenital insensitivity to pain SCN11A (Nav1.9) Heterozygous, activating No pain Hyperhidrosis; muscular weakness; infant gut dysmotility
Inherited erythromelalgia SCN9A (Nav1.7) Heterozygous, activating Onset by age 20 years; episodic pain triggered by warmth; feet affected more frequently than hands Erythema of feet
Paroxysmal extreme pain disorder SCN9A (Nav1.7) Heterozygous, activating Onset at birth; episodic pain; sacral region is affected most frequently, face is affected more often than the limbs; physical triggers include defecation Erythema of the sacrum; tonic attacks
Small-fibre neuropathy SCN9A (Nav1.7) Heterozygous, activating Onset at any age but more common in early adulthood; persistent burning pain; feet affected more frequently than hands Could be autonomic features
Small-fibre neuropathy SCN10A (Nav1.8) Heterozygous, activating Persistent burning pain Could be autonomic features
Familial episodic pain syndrome type I TRPA1 (TRPA1) Heterozygous, activating Onset at birth or in infancy; episodic chest or arm pain; triggers are hunger and cold
Familial episodic pain syndrome type III SCN11A (Nav1.9) Heterozygous, activating Onset in first decade; episodic hand and foot pain; triggers are intercurrent illness or exercise


Some of the other ion channel changes seen in chronic pain include:channelopathies linked to chronic pain include:

  1. TRPV1-related disorders: TRPV1 (transient receptor potential vanilloid 1) is a nonselective cation channel involved in detecting noxious heat and various chemical stimuli. It plays a key role in the development of inflammatory pain and has been implicated in chronic pain conditions, such as osteoarthritis, and neuropathic pain.
  2. Kv7 (KCNQ)-related disorders: Kv7 potassium channels regulate neuronal excitability and have been linked to neuropathic pain. Mutations in KCNQ genes can lead to a reduction in potassium currents, increasing neuronal excitability and potentially contributing to chronic pain.
  3. HCN-related disorders: Hyperpolarization-activated cyclic nucleotide-gated (HCN) channels are involved in regulating neuronal excitability. Their dysregulation has been implicated in neuropathic pain and other pain conditions, such as migraine and fibromyalgia.
  4. Cav3.2 (T-type calcium channel)-related disorders: Cav3.2 is a T-type calcium channel that contributes to neuronal excitability. Its upregulation has been linked to neuropathic and inflammatory pain, as well as pain associated with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome

See Also

Sodium Channelopathies



  1. Bennett, David L. H.; Woods, C. Geoffrey (2014-06). "Painful and painless channelopathies". The Lancet. Neurology. 13 (6): 587–599. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(14)70024-9. ISSN 1474-4465. PMID 24813307. Check date values in: |date= (help)

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