why does a heating pad help menstrual cramps

March 26, 2001 -- Women have often turned to the soothing warmth from a heating pad to help ease the pain of menstrual. Doctors, however, say they are still trying to determine if the practice actually has some medical benefit. "Heating pads are something that have been used and advocated in the community for years," Michael Zinger, MD, tells WebMD. "It is a home remedy that has been used for a long time, and many people believe in it, but it hasn't been sufficiently validated in an academic scientific medical setting. "
Some women are said to experience pain and cramping at the beginning of their because of abnormal uterine and a constriction of vessels in the myometrium, the smooth muscle coat of the uterus.

It's possible that a heating pad could help to relax the myometrium, reducing constriction of vessels and improving blood flow to the uterus. When Zinger's group tested this theory on a small group of patients, the researchers found their participants' pain often lessened over time. But they are still speculating about their results on blood flow. "We did find a significant decrease in the amount of pain the patients had over those four hours," says Zinger, who is a clinical instructor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Cincinnati. The percent reduction in pain compared with the start of treatment was 27% at the first hour, 43% at the second hour, and 79% at the end of the fourth hour.

The investigators measured uterine blood flow in seven patients asked to come in for a four-hour session during a painful period. Heating pads were placed on patients' lower abdomens for four hours, with a temperature maintained at about 104-107 F. The researchers, however, did not find a change in the average blood flow. But in individual patients, those who reported the greatest reduction in pain seemed to have the most improvement in their own uterine blood flow during the testing times. The study was presented as a scientific poster at the Society of Gynecologic Investigation annual meeting held in Toronto earlier this month.

Heating pads and hot water bottles have long been thought to remedy stomach aches or menstrual. Now scientists have figured out how heat applied externally relieves internal pain. 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, explains Brian King of the University College London. The heat doesn't just provide comfort and have a effect it actually deactivates the pain at a molecular level in much the same way as pharmaceutical painkillers work. When heat over 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) is applied to the skin, heat receptors deeper down, where the pain is, are switched on.

The heat receptors in turn block the effect of chemical messengers that by the body. Specifically, King and his colleagues discovered that a heat receptor called TRPV1 can block P2X3 pain receptors. The problem with heat is that it can only provide temporary relief, King said. The focus of future research will continue to be the discovery and development of pain relief drugs that will block P2X3 pain receptors. The study was presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the Physiological Society. It has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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