The spinothalamic tract consists of two adjacent pathways: anterior and lateral. The anterior spinothalamic tract carries information about crude touch. The lateral spinothalamic tract conveys pain and temperature.
The axons of the tract cells cross over (decussate) to the other side of the spinal cord via the anterior white commissure, and to the anterolateral corner of the spinal cord (hence the spinothalamic tract being part of the anterolateral system). Decussation usually occurs 1-2 spinal nerve segments above the point of entry. The axons travel up the length of the spinal cord into the brainstem, specifically the rostral ventromedial medulla.
Traveling up the brainstem, the tract moves dorsally. The neurons ultimately synapse with third-order neurons in several nuclei of the thalamus—including the medial dorsal, ventral posterior lateral, and ventral posterior medial nuclei. From there, signals go to the cingulate cortex, the primary somatosensory cortex, and insular cortex respectively.
The types of sensory information transmitted via the spinothalamic tract are described as affective sensation. This means that the sensation is accompanied by a compulsion to act. For instance, an itch is accompanied by a need to scratch, and a painful stimulus makes us want to withdraw from the pain.
There are two sub-systems identified:
Direct (for direct conscious appreciation of pain)
Indirect (for affective and arousal impact of pain). Indirect projections include
In contrast to the axons of second-order neurons in posterior column-medial lemniscus pathway, the axons of second-order neurons in the spinothalamic tracts cross at every segmental level in the spinal cord. This fact aids in determining whether a lesion is in the brain or the spinal cord. With lesions in the brain stem or higher, deficits of pain perception, touch sensation, and proprioception are all contralateral to the lesion. With spinal cord lesions, however, the deficit in pain perception is contralateral to the lesion, whereas the other deficits are ipsilateral.
Unilateral lesions usually cause contralateral anaesthesia (loss of pain and temperature). Anaesthesia will normally begin 1-2 segments below the level of lesion, affecting all caudal body areas. This is clinically tested by using pin pricks.