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BACKGROUND: Pain remains the cardinal symptom of endometriosis. However, to date, the underlying mechanisms are still only poorly understood. Increasing evidence points towards a close interaction between peripheral nerves, the peritoneal environment and the central nervous system in pain generation and processing. Recently, studies demonstrating nerve fibres and neurotrophic and angiogenic factors in endometriotic lesions and their vicinity have led to increased interest in peripheral changes in endometriosis-associated pain. This review focuses on the origin and function of these nerves and factors as well as possible peripheral mechanisms that may contribute to the generation and modulation of pain in women with endometriosis. METHODS: We conducted a systematic search using several databases (PubMed, MEDLINE, EMBASE and CINAHL) of publications from January 1977 to October 2013 to evaluate the possible roles of the peripheral nervous system in endometriosis pathophysiology and how it can contribute to endometriosis-associated pain. RESULTS: Endometriotic lesions and peritoneal fluid from women with endometriosis had pronounced neuroangiogenic properties with increased expression of new nerve fibres, a shift in the distribution of sensory and autonomic fibres in some locations, and up-regulation of several neurotrophins. In women suffering from deep infiltrating endometriosis and bowel endometriosis, in which the anatomical distribution of lesions is generally more closely related to pelvic pain symptoms, endometriotic lesions and surrounding tissues present higher nerve fibre densities compared with peritoneal lesions and endometriomas. More data are needed to fully confirm a direct correlation between fibre density in these locations and the amount of perceived pain. A better correlation between the presence of nerve fibres and pain symptoms seems to exist for eutopic endometrium. However, this appears not to be exclusive to endometriosis. No correlation between elevated neurotrophin levels and pain severity appears to exist, suggesting the involvement of other mediators in the modulation of pain. CONCLUSIONS: The increased expression of neurotrophic factors and nerve fibres in endometriotic lesions, eutopic endometrium and the peritoneum imply a role of such peripheral changes in the pathogenesis of endometriosis-associated pain. However, a clear link between these findings and pain in patients with endometriosis has so far not been demonstrated.

Original publication

DOI

10.1093/humupd/dmu021

Type

Journal article

Journal

Hum Reprod Update

Publication Date

09/2014

Volume

20

Pages

717 - 736

Keywords

Endometriosis, nerve fibres, neuroangiogenesis, neurotrophins, peripheral changes, Ascitic Fluid, Endometriosis, Endometrium, Female, Humans, Neovascularization, Pathologic, Nerve Fibers, Neurogenesis, Pain