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Sneezing & Trigeminal Nerves, A Fascinating Connection

Dynamics of Sneezing From Irritants to Reflex

Allergic rhinitis, known colloquially as hay fever, denotes an immune-mediated response characterized by sneezing, nasal congestion, pruritic nose, and lacrimation. Triggers such as pollen, animal dander, mold, and insect-related allergens precipitate the manifestation of hay fever symptoms..


Sneezing Reflex Overview

Sneezing, a common physiological occurrence, prompts contemplation regarding its intricacies, including the mechanisms governing its occurrence, the pattern of multiple consecutive sneezes, and the reflexive closure of the eyes during the process. To address these inquiries comprehensively, we elucidate ten salient aspects of sneezing.

The Significance of Sneezing for Health

Sneezing embodies a protective reflex that has evolved as a response to the irritation of the nasal lining. This reflex plays a crucial role in forcefully expelling various particles from the nasal cavity, thereby safeguarding the nasal passages, the respiratory tract, and the overall bodily integrity. Functionally, sneezing serves to protect against allergens, viruses, irritants, and other potential invaders that initially gain access to the body through the nasal route.

Mechanisms of Sneezing

Sneezing comprises two distinct phases the sensory or nasal phase, followed by the efferent or respiratory phase. The actual sneeze, constituting the respiratory phase, is instigated by the preceding sensory phase.

During the sensory phase, the initiation occurs when a particle is detected within the mucous membrane lining of the nose. This detection triggers the release of chemicals in the nasal lining, inducing the downstream activation of the trigeminal nerve—an innervation responsible for facial sensation. The trigeminal nerve subsequently stimulates a region of the brainstem known as the medulla oblongata.

The efferent or respiratory phase commences as the medulla oblongata activates both a parasympathetic pathway and a motor pathway through its connections in the brainstem. Parasympathetic activation results in tearing of the eyes and increased nasal secretions concomitant with the sneezing process. Simultaneously, the motor pathway engages the muscles in the throat and respiratory muscles. The diaphragm undergoes contraction, initiating a deep inhalation. The glottis, representing the vocal cords, closes, leading to the contraction of respiratory muscles in the chest. This sequence generates pressure within the lungs. Subsequently, the glottis opens, facilitating the release of a high-velocity airstream into the throat, nose, and mouth. This airflow, recognized as the sneeze, propels mucus and particles expelled with the forceful air current.

Examining the Reflex Mechanism from Irritant Perception to Unconscious Response If you are grappling with hay fever, you are likely experiencing an abundance of sneezing episodes. Sneezing, a universal yet distinct phenomenon for each individual, serves as a protective reflex beyond conscious control—a mechanism aimed at expelling irritants from the nasal cavity.

The force generated during a sneeze surpasses 30 times that of heavy breathing during exercise, with estimated speeds ranging from 5 meters per second to over 150 kilometers per hour.

RELATED ARTICLE Hello hay fever – why pressing under your nose could stop a sneeze but why you shouldn’t

Attempting to suppress a sneeze by pinching your nose or applying pressure underneath it aligns with the gate control theory of pain, suggesting that external stimulation can modulate neural responses. However, considering the velocity of a sneeze, impeding it once initiated may not be advisable.

The Involuntary Nature of Sneezing Sneezing initiates when sensory nerves in the nasal passages detect irritants, such as allergens, viruses, bacteria, or fluids. These sensory nerves transmit the irritant information to the brain.

Upon reaching a threshold quantity, the brain triggers the sneeze reflex. The reflex encompasses a deep inhalation, pressurization within the airways, diaphragm and rib muscle contraction, reflexive eye closure, and forceful exhalation—comprising the distinctive “ah” and “tchoo” phases of a sneeze.

During the exhalation phase, the tongue elevates to the roof of the mouth, sealing the back of the mouth and directing the expelled air predominantly through the nose. This forceful airflow serves to expel the irritants responsible for initiating the sneeze, with the “tch” sound arising from the reflexive tongue-to-mouth-roof contact.

The Significance of Trigeminal Nerves The trigeminal nerves, the largest among the 12 pairs of cranial nerves and the most substantial sensory nerves in the body, play a pivotal role. These nerves convey sensory information from the face, encompassing touch, pain, and irritation sensations from facial skin, nose, and mouth.

Within each trigeminal nerve are numerous individual branches, each dedicated to transmitting specific sensory information types.

RELATED ARTICLE The Dangers of Sneezing: A Review of Injuries

Communication in the Spinal Cord Sensory nerves travel to the brain via the spinal cord, with pain and irritant signal-carrying nerves being narrow, while touch information-carrying nerves are wider and faster.

Within the spinal cord, these nerves interact through interneurons before relaying their messages to the brain. These interneurons, akin to the “gates” in the gate control theory of pain, regulate the transmission of signals to the brain.

While a nerve transmitting a pain signal prompts the interneuron to “open the gate,” larger nerves conveying touch information can “close the gate,” obstructing pain messages from reaching the brain. This phenomenon explains why rubbing an injured area can alleviate pain sensation.

Practical Applications and the Sneezing Conundrum Various methods, such as pulling the ear, placing the tongue on the roof of the mouth or behind the teeth, touching the nose, or inserting a finger into the nose, aim to stop a sneeze by stimulating trigeminal touch nerves. The objective is to instruct interneurons to “close the gate,” preventing irritant signals from reaching the brain and triggering a sneeze.

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Considering the potential risks associated with halting a sneeze, including increased airway pressure leading to potential harm to the eyes, ears, or blood vessels, it is advisable to treat allergies or address irritants to prevent the sneeze reflex. Alternatively, embracing one’s unique sneeze style and using a tissue when necessary ensures a safer approach.

In conclusion, delving into the intricacies of sneezing unveils the intricate interplay between sensory nerves, the trigeminal system, and the gate control theory of pain. While the cessation of a sneeze is plausible, careful consideration of potential risks encourages individuals to acknowledge and embrace their distinctive sneeze style as a preferable alternative.

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