Random question for the hive mind.

The other day, my better half and I were discussing scratching. Predictably, in the course of the discussion, I became aware of every itchy square millimeter of skin I might possibly possess.

I wondered whether scratching actually works -- that is, whether scratching ever acts to make an itch go away, or even to reduce it.

"Of course it does," my better half opined. "Why else would we do it?"

"Because we're poorly adapted?" I ventured.

So, here's the question*:

Is there any good research to demonstrate whether scratching alleviates itching? Is there any evidence (beyond your mom's say-so) that scratching is bound to exacerbate your itching? Is there a "right" way to scratch that makes a difference here.

Sheesh, just writing this post makes me feel like I need an oatmeal bath!

______
*Yeah, actually three questions, but they're related.

More like this

Itching is an unpleasant sensation that drives us to scratch reflexively in an effort to remove harmful substances from our body. It's also how I get most of my physical activity for the day. Not being able to scratch an itch is intensely frustrating and many scientists have long described itch as…
The forthcoming issue of The New Yorker contains a fantastic article by surgeon and writer Atul Gawande about the neurobiology of itching. The article begins with the extraordinary case of a patient known as M., whose itch, which occurred following an episode of shingles, became so unbearable that…
There are a few writers who manage to trigger a contradictory mixture of feelings in me: the joy of reading their prose is fused with the mild anguish of not having written their prose. It's one part status anxiety, a dash of jealousy and a big heaping of aesthetic appreciation. Atul Gawande is one…
I have been watching this video several times before I saw this revision of it. Sheesh, I feel like I am on a subway, watching this video.

I think it does. We are not the only species that scratches. Dogs with fleas do it all the time. If it didn't help any, why would other species do it?

Emperically, it results in subjective alleviation. It distracts you from the itch.
And while there are many obvious itches one shouldn't scratch (posion ivy, mosquito bites, ect. are definitely exacerbated by scratching), I don't think "normal" itches are exacerbated by scratching. I suppose if you scratch really hard (to the point it gets extra pinkish) you're probably increasing blood flow and maybe you could get a very minor tissue damage inflammatory response.

There are a number of conditions in which scratching actively exacerbates itching. For example, people with dermatographism have mast cells that are particularly susceptible to physical trauma, and scratching causes mast cell degranulation, leading to a weal and flare response.

that is, you can write your name on their skin with your finger nail, and you'll get nice raised red itchy letters on the skin.

I think we can all agree that scratching feels good while it's in progress, and I think I've read neurological explanations for this. The big issue is whether the itching is reduced (or increased!) once the scratching stops.

There's this idea: "It is proposed that stimulation of large areas of skin such as by scratching, generates inhibitory activity which suppresses itch excitation."

Scratching makes a lot of sense. Our first indication that a bug has landed on us is often an itching sensation at that spot. Thus, by scratching, we often knock the critter off before it has a chance to bite us. This makes a lot of sense as an evolutionary mechanism, because we know that insects can transmit all sorts of nasty diseases like malaria, dengue fever, etc.

The fact that our system sends a lot of false positive signals to the brain is just indicative of a "better safe than sorry" strategy.

As I recall, the sensation of itching is due to low level firing of pain receptors. Much like a sharp pain nearby reduces pain through signal buffering (I can't recall the exact mechanism at the moment), I would think scratching alleviates the itching in a similar manner.

So...it alleviates the sensation, not the cause...

Oh, shit, I thought this was obvious. The adaptive benefit of itching and scratching is thought to be removal of parasites and bloodsucking predators from our skin.

*looks at PalMD's comment*

*sighs*

*edits his physiological psychology lectures*

So much for my old physio psych books ;)

Anyways, it's still possible that mechanical activation of other receptors might be the source of alleviation of the symptoms of itching.

IBS: Itchy Back Syndrome.

As you get older you will almost certainly find that there is a point on your back that you absolutely cannot reach that will itch constantly. I remember seeing my father rubbing his back against a door frame as he talked to me. Now I have that same itch. It's IBS.

I always naively thought that scratching alleviated itching because it "overloaded" the nerves. In some cases it seems to eliminate the itch, but in other cases the relief is temporary. I have found that running very hot water over poison ivy alleviates the itch for a significant time, and there seems to be no rebound or other ill effects.

But scratching does not relieve IBS, except for a moment. The only way to deal with it is to do something else to get your mind off it.

PalMD wrote:
that is, you can write your name on their skin with your finger nail, and you'll get nice raised red itchy letters on the skin.

I've got dermatographism, and it isn't particularly itchy. IBS is much worse.

Once I demonstrated it for an acquaintance by letting him "write" on my tummy. He said, "This is even more fun than writing in wet concrete!"

By Quercki M. Singer (not verified) on 13 Nov 2008 #permalink