ATP in human skin elicits a dose-related pain response which is potentiated under conditions of hyperalgesia

S G Hamilton, J Warburton, A Bhattacharjee, J Ward, S B McMahon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

141 Citations (Scopus)


Despite the considerable interest in the possibility that ATP may function as a peripheral pain mediator, there has been little quantitative study of the pain-producing effects of ATP in humans. Here we have used iontophoresis to deliver ATP to the forearm skin of volunteers who rated the magnitude of the evoked pain on a visual analogue scale. ATP consistently produced a modest burning pain, which began within 20 s of starting iontophoresis and was maintained for several minutes. Persistent iontophoresis of ATP led to desensitization within 12 min but recovery from this was almost complete 1 h later. Different doses of ATP were delivered using different iontophoretic driving currents. Iontophoresis of ATP produced a higher pain rating than saline, indicating that the pain was specifically caused by ATP The average pain rating for ATP, but not saline, increased with increasing current. Using an 0.8 mA current, subjects reported pain averaging 27.7 +/- 2.8 (maximum possible = 100). Iontophoresis of ATP caused an increase in blood flow, as assessed using a laser Doppler flow meter. The increase in blood how was significantly greater using ATP than saline in both the iontophoresed skin (P <0.01) and in the surrounding skin, 3 mm outside the iontophoresed area (P <0.05). The pain produced by ATP was dependent on capsaicin-sensitive sensory neurons, since in skin treated repeatedly with topical capsaicin pain was reduced to less than 25% of that elicited on normal skin (2.1 +/- 0.4 compared with 9.3 +/- 1.5 on normal skin). Conversely, the pain-producing effects of ATP were greatly potentiated in several models of hyperalgesia. Thus, with acute capsaicin treatment when subjects exhibited touch-evoked hyperalgesia but no ongoing pain, there was a threefold increase in the average pain rating during ATP iontophoresis (22.7 +/- 3.1) compared with pre-capsaicin treatment (7.8 +/- 2.6). Moreover, ATP iontophoresed into skin 24 h after solar simulated radiation (2 x minimal erythymic dose) resulted in double the pain rating of normal skin, increasing from 15.3 +/- 4.1 to 32.7 +/- 4.1. The pain response to saline was not significantly altered after UV irradiation at any time-point studied. We conclude that ATP produces pain by activating capsaicin-sensitive nociceptive afferents when applied to skin. The possibility that ATP activates nociceptors indirectly via its degradation products cannot be ruled out. The effects of ATP are dose-dependent and responses desensitize only slowly. In inflammatory conditions, ATP may be a potent activator of nociceptors and an endogenous mediator of pain.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1238 - 1246
Number of pages9
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2000


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