To characterise the phytotherapeutic tocolytic Bryophyllum pinnatum in vitro versus the conventional betamimetic, fenoterol, in human myometrium. STUDY DESIGN: Contractility (endpoints: area under the curve (AUC), amplitude and frequency of isometric force development) was measured in strips of term myometrium biopsied at caesarean section in 14 women and exposed to increasing concentrations of B. pinnatum versus +/- oxytocin 1 U/l. RESULTS: Inhibition of spontaneous contraction by B. pinnatum was concentration-dependent: 16% at maximum concentration (10(4) mg/l), or 53% that with fenoterol 5 x 10(-8)mol/l. B. pinnatum increased contraction frequency by 91% at constant amplitude and inhibited oxytocin-stimulated contractions by 20% (AUC) at constant amplitude with slightly decreased frequency. Fenoterol decreased contraction AUC by 50% with a significant decrease in frequency. CONCLUSION: Our in vitro data confirm the tocolytic activity of B. pinnatum observed in alternative medicine centres and may justify further clinical studies.