Why you keep scratching that itch

Why you keep scratching that itch

Itching and scratching is all too common during the summer months thanks to mosquito bites, infections from poison ivy and sunburn. While it is generally known that scratching an itch is bad, it can be difficult to deny yourself the simple relief.

After a recent study from the Department of Dermatology and Temple Itch Center at Temple University School of Medicine, researchers now have a better understanding of why scratching an itch evokes such a rewarding and pleasurable sensation.

Using advanced MRI imaging, researchers studied brain activity when subjects scratched an itch and found that the areas of the brain involved in motor control and reward processing became active when an itch was scratched.

“There is a significant instant gratification from itching,” says Dr. Rania Agha, board certified dermatologist who treats patients at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill. “However, this gratification is followed by a vicious cycle of scratching and itching, and it takes a tremendous amount of willpower for one to interrupt this cycle.”

Study leaders found that brain activity in these areas was especially high in patients with chronic itch, which is a symptom that occurs in many medical conditions and in response to certain drugs.

“Itching accounts for millions of dermatology visits annually,” Dr. Agha says. “It is important to recognize any underlying illnesses and treat accordingly.”

Patients suffering from any type of chronic itch should make an appointment with a physician in order to determine the underlying cause of the itch, Agha recommends. She encourages patients to recognize the addictive behavior of scratching and itching, and to cope with it appropriately.

Under the care of a physician, if the underlying cause is corrected, the itch can improve, and in many instances topical as well as oral medications are prescribed.

“The skin is the window through which we can determine internal diseases,” says Dr. Agha. “Chronic itch can be a sign of system failures in our bodies, such as the kidneys and liver, and also of psychological distress.”

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  1. If the itch is caused by keratoses it is very difficult to treat because they are considered cosmetic so removal will not be covered by health insruance. That is the only way to stop the itch. Sometimes I scratch without realizing it until I find them bleeding.

  2. One night, the top of my foot started to itch, so I started to scratch it. As your article indicates, it felt very good to scratch the itch. But it felt to me that the scratching wasn’t helping — it felt like the small itchy area was getting larger, requiring even more scratching. I later estimated that I had scratched the area for about five minutes, without stopping. I kept scratching even though it became painful to do so. I eventually looked at my foot and saw the area was bleeding…and I am a Diabetic. What an idiot!

  3. My husband has this kind of ich for long time at a specific place in his back. Every day he ichs so much that he constantly has de age spots , redness and even slashes and wound.
    Is it the case of Chronic ichs? I sent him this article and, of course, he did not believe, so I want to take him to a doctor if it is necessary.

    Thank you for your help to clarify this “itching problem” and have some solution.

    Celia, a good wife!!

    • If the itch is an ongoing problem and it concerns you, then your husband should see a physician in order to determine the cause of the itch.

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.