Scratch that itch

If you’ve got an itch, scratch it. That’s both a piece of medical advice and piece of wisdom to live by. The burning question is though, what causes the itch and are all itches the same? According to a new piece of research the pleasure achieved by scratching an itch depends very much on where the itch occurs.

Cowhage (Mercuria pruriens) is a tropical vine that produces seed pods which carry spiky hairs that can produce intense itching. Researchers placed these Cowhage seed pods on volunteers, either on their ankles, forearms, or backs. They left the pods there for 45 seconds and then evaluated the intensity of the itch and the pleasure achieved by scratching the area for 30 seconds at five minute intervals. The evaluation was done using a standardised visual scale that measures itch intensity from zero (not itch) to ten (unbearable itch).

The results showed that itch was perceived most intensely on the back and ankle while itching and scratch relief were less intense on the forearm. Additionally, scratching the ankle gave a longer lasting pleasure sensation than on the other two sites.

This all suggests that while we know small nerve fibres are involved in itching, the must be specific nerve fibres involved in the pleasure of being scratched and these must be differently distributed at sites around your body. Understanding this better could lead to better ways to treat skin conditions involving itching.

Although the exact mechanisms of itching are still be discovered we know quite a lot about the itch. We know for instance, that it is contagious. We also know that when you scratch an itch the parts of your brain involved in recalling past events tend to shut down as do the parts that feel pain. Combine this with what we now know about scratching different parts of your body from this latest study, and scratching your ankle (focusing the mind on the moment, reducing pain, and providing lasting pleasure) might be a fast-track to enlightenment.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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Scratch that itch

You’ve just got to scratch that itch, haven’t you? Come on, admit it, just by reading about itching there is some small centimetre of your body screaming out for some fingernail action. Fret not, good reader, you are not in the early stages of some disfiguring, and yet fascinating, skin disease. Just like everyone else you are susceptible to the contagious nature of itching. You’ve looked at the picture accompanying this story, you’ve read the word “itch” or “itching” six times already and new research tells us that is probably enough to have anybody feeling itchy twinges.

For the study researchers compared healthy subjects to people who had atopic (allergic) dermatitis. All of the subjects were monitored as they watched video clips of people who were either in a relaxed state or giving themselves a good scratch.

The results showed that all people tended to scratch themselves when they saw someone else scratching themselves. This showed that itching is “visually contagious”; if you see someone scratching an itch then you will feel an itch too. Beyond this there were also a couple of interesting findings.

It was found that people did not necessarily scratch the same part of the body that they saw being scratched. So this is not just a case of simple mimicry. At some level your brain processes what it sees and translates that into an experience that is unique to you. Exactly what itches on different parts of the body mean remains yet to be explored but “itchology” is a field just waiting (itching?) for detailed analysis and probably a daily online column.

The other interesting finding was that people with dermatitis had a higher itch intensity and scratched more frequently when stimulated by watching someone else with an itch than people who did not have dermatitis. Again, this remains unexplained but may point to some degree of itch priming or itch sensitisation in the brains of people with dermatitis.

Whatever the mechanisms for these interesting findings, the clear result of this research is that the brain can generate an itch independent of external stimuli. The next step will be to conduct brain scans to establish the exact brain relationship to itching. Once the itch-brain connection is understood techniques like meditation and relaxation may be able to reduce itch for people like dermatitis sufferers where itching can become a real problem.

Alright, you’ve held yourself back long enough now, go ahead…scratch that itch!

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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