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About four decades ago, Perl and collaborators were the first ones who unambiguously identified specifically nociceptive neurons in the periphery. In their classic work, they recorded action potentials from single C-fibers of a cutaneous nerve in cats while applying carefully graded stimuli to the skin (Bessou P, Perl ER. Response of cutaneous sensory units with unmyelinated fibers to noxious stimuli. J Neurophysiol 32: 1025Â1043, 1969). They discovered polymodal nociceptors, which responded to mechanical, thermal, and chemical stimuli in the noxious range, and differentiated them from low-threshold thermoreceptors. Their classic findings form the basis of the present method that undergraduate medical students experience during laboratory exercises of sensory physiology, namely, quantitative testing of the thermal detection and pain thresholds. This diagnostic method examines the function of thin afferent nerve fibers. We collected data from nearly 300 students that showed that 1) women are more sensitive to thermal detection and thermal pain at the thenar than men, 2) habituation shifts thermal pain thresholds during repetititve testing, 3) the cold pain threshold is rather variable and lower when tested after heat pain than in the reverse case (order effect), and 4) ratings of pain intensity on a visual analog scale are correlated with the threshold temperature for heat pain but not for cold pain. Median group results could be reproduced in a retest. Quantitative sensory testing of thermal thresholds is feasible and instructive in the setting of a laboratory exercise and is appreciated by the students as a relevant and interesting technique.
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