Heat, but not mechanical hyperalgesia, following adrenergic injections in normal human skin

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The development of adrenergic sensitivity in nociceptors has been suggested as a mechanism of neuropathic pain. We sought to determine if nociceptors in the skin of normal subjects exhibit adrenergic sensitivity. We investigated the effects of intradermal administration of norepinephrine, phenylephrine, and brimonidine on heat pain sensitivity. Norepinephrine and phenylephrine (in concentrations ranging from 0.1 to 10 μM by factors of 10), brimonidine (at 0.01-1 μM), and saline were injected (30 μl volume) in a random, double-blind manner to different sites on the volar surface of the forearm in ten subjects. Before and after the injections, heat testing was performed with a non-contact laser thermal stimulator. Heat pain threshold was measured by means of a 'Marstock' technique in which subjects pressed a reaction time key when they perceived that a slowly increasing heat stimulus (1°C/s ramp from a 36°C base) was painful. In addition, the subjects used magnitude estimation techniques to rate the intensity of pain to a suprathreshold heat stimulus (47°C, 2 s). Mechanical testing was done using 200-μm diameter probes attached to calibrated weights that provided forces over the range of 16-512 mN. The intradermal injections of norepinephrine, phenylephrine and brimonidine produced little evoked pain. However, a dose-dependant decrease in heat pain threshold, but not mechanical pain threshold, was observed. At the highest drug dose injected, all three adrenergic compounds produced a significant decrease in heat pain threshold compared to the saline injection. A significant increase in response to the suprathreshold heat stimulus was also found. One possible explanation for this apparent heat hyperalgesia is that the decrease in perfusion due to the localized vasoconstriction may alter the heat response. However, in control studies we found that the non-adrenergic vasoconstrictors, angiotensin II and vasopressin did not produce heat hyperalgesia at doses that produced comparable decreases in blood flow. In addition, occlusion of blood flow with a blood pressure cuff did not lead to heat hyperalgesia. Thus, the heat hyperalgesia observed with the adrenergic agonists is not due to a decrease in perfusion associated with the injection. These results indicate that α1- and α2-adrenoceptor-mediated mechanisms may play a role in sensitization of nociceptors to heat stimuli in normal skin.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15-23
Number of pages9
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2001


  • Adrenergic sensitivity
  • Heat
  • Mechanical hyperalgesia
  • Nociceptor
  • Skin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine

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