Scientists have discovered a new pain organ in the skin.
The cells form a network that senses painful stimuli such as pricks and impact.
Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden say the organ is sensitive to hazardous environmental irritation.
It is made up of glia cells with multiple long protrusions, which collectively make up a mesh-like organ within the skin.
The study’s chief investigator, Professor Patrik Ernfors, said: “Our study shows that sensitivity to pain does not occur only in the skin’s nerve fibres, but also in this recently discovered pain-sensitive organ.
“The discovery changes our understanding of the cellular mechanisms of physical sensation and it may be of significance in the understanding of chronic pain.”
Published in the journal Science, the study describes the new pain-sensitive organ, and explains how it is organised together with pain-sensitive nerves in the skin.
Researchers say activation of the organ results in electrical impulses in the nervous system that result in reflex reactions and an experience of pain.
The organ is made up of cells that are highly sensitive to mechanical stimuli, which explain how they can participate in the detection of painful pinpricks and pressure.
In experiments, the researchers also blocked the organ and saw a resultant decreased ability to feel mechanical pain.
Researchers say pain causes suffering and results in substantial costs for society, but that sensitivity to pain is also required for survival and has a protective function.
It prompts reflex reactions that prevent damage to tissue, such as pulling your hand away when you feel a jab from a sharp object or when you burn yourself.