Acute pain signaling has a key protective role and is highly evolutionarily conserved. Chronic pain, however, is maladaptive, occurring as a consequence of injury and disease, and is associated with sensitization of the somatosensory nervous system.
Primary sensory neurons are involved in both of these processes, and the recent advances in understanding sensory transduction and human genetics are the focus of this review. Voltage-gated sodium channels (VGSCs) are important determinants of sensory neuron excitability: they are essential for the initial transduction of sensory stimuli, the electrogenesis of the action potential, and neurotransmitter release from sensory neuron terminals. Nav1.1, Nav1.6, Nav1.7, Nav1.8, and Nav1.9 are all expressed by adult sensory neurons. The biophysical characteristics of these channels, as well as their unique expression patterns within subtypes of sensory neurons, define their functional role in pain signaling. Changes in the expression of VGSCs, as well as posttranslational modifications, contribute to the sensitization of sensory neurons in chronic pain states.