By Pat Hagan
Last updated at 10:48 PM on 29th June 2009
A device that fires a mild electric current through the abdomen could be a radical new treatment for period pain.
The treatment is based on a technology called pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF), which has been used for many years to treat sports injuries.
An estimated 75 per cent of women suffer from period pain – one in five so severely that it affects everyday activities.
Symptoms range from abdominal pain and nausea to dizziness and diarrhoea.
There are two types of period pain (or dysmenorrhoea). The more common is primary dysmenorrhoea; here, there is no underlying medical reason for the pain. In other words, a woman’s womb is healthy and the pain is the result of the body’s natural process of shedding the womb lining.
In secondary dysmenorrhoea, the symptoms are caaused by something more serious, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, where bacteria infect the reproductive organs and trigger painful swelling.
While many rely on over the – counter painkillers to cope with period pain, GPs may also prescribe the contraceptive pill – this thins the lining of the womb so that muscles do not have to contract so much during a period, reducing pain.
The new device, known as Allay, offers a drug-free alternative. It is roughly the size of a saucer and consists of a metal loop covered in cloth.
The loop is attached by wires to a small batteryoperated control unit which contains a computerised microchip. Both the loop and the device are held in place by the elastic of the woman’s underwear.
When is switched on, the device sends a series of small currents through the loop inside the cloth; this generates a ‘pulsed’ electromagnetic field – one that repeatedly switches on and off.
The level of current it produces is low, around a tenth of the electromagnetic force produced by a mobile phone. But this is said to be enough to provide pain relief.
The theory is that when cells are traumatised, such as during menstruation, their natural electrical charge is reduced.
This triggers chemical signals that cause inflammation, resulting in pain and also inhibiting the communication between cells necessary for pain relief to begin. It’s said that the new device restores the natural electrical balance in the cells, triggering healing.
PEMF technology has been used for many years in the treatment of pain and sports injuries.
The most well-known form is a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulatoror TENS machine. These deliver small electrical pulses to the body via electrodes placed on the skin and it’s thought they affect the way pain signals are sent to the brain.
Pain signals reach the brain via nerves and the spinal cord; blocking them means the brain will receive fewer signals. While the evidence to back up their use is mixed, many people report the machines help to ease their pain.
PEMF has even been used to help injured racehorses recover. But the equipment has traditionally been bulky and immobile. The new patch shrinks the technology into a handy size that allows the patient to go about their normal activities.
However, serious doubts remain in some circles about whether PEMF has any real effect, or is all in the mind.
Some studies suggest that similar treatments in osteoarthritis, for example, fare no better than a dummy therapy.
Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists spokesman Dr Peter Bowen-Simpkins says if it does work, the Allay patch could help some women.
‘Some are so disabled by period pain they cannot go to work, school or university. If this patch really is able to make a difference, then I would welcome it.’
The Allay, which costs around £30, will be available from High Street chemists within the next six months. Each one has a battery life of around 360 hours – enough for three five-day periods.
• For more information, visit www.periodrelief.com