UCL News


Press release: Heat halts pain inside the body

5 July 2006

The old wives' tale that heat relieves abdominal pain, such as colic or menstrual pain, has been scientifically proven by a UCL scientist.

The research is presented at the Main Meeting of the Physiological Society, held at UCL.

Dr Brian King (UCL Physiology) led the research that found the molecular basis for the longstanding theory that heat, such as that from a hot-water bottle applied to the skin, provides relief from internal pains such as stomach ache for up to an hour.

Dr King said: "The pain of colic, cystitis and period pain is caused by a temporary reduction in blood flow to or over-distension of hollow organs such as the bowel or uterus, causing local tissue damage and activating pain receptors.

"The heat doesn't just provide comfort and have a placebo effect - it actually deactivates the pain at a molecular level in much the same way that pharmaceutical painkillers work. We have discovered how this molecular process works."

If heat over 40 degrees Celsius is applied to the skin near to where internal pain is felt, it switches on heat receptors located at the site of injury. These heat receptors in turn block the effect of chemical messengers that cause pain to be detected by the body.

The team found that the heat receptor, known as TRPV1, can block P2X3 pain receptors. These pain receptors are activated by ATP, the body's source of energy, when it is released from damaged and dying cells. By blocking the pain receptors, TRPV1 stops pain from being sensed by the body.

Read the complete UCL press release.

To read BBC Online coverage, use the link at the bottom of this article.


BBC Health story