Itching: Does Scratching Make It Worse?

Itching that drives you completely crazy. Who doesn’t know it? Only scratching helps. But scratching only helps for a short time. How many times have you heard “Don’t scratch, it will only make the itch worse!” When you scratch, you only get relief for a short time. Very soon the itching returns. And even worse than before. Why is that so and what happens in the body when we scratch an itch? Special nerve cells play an important role in this.

Itching area is often difficult to reach

If it itches terribly somewhere, only vigorous scratching will help. A pleasant feeling of relief occurs almost immediately. And it doesn’t matter whether you scratch yourself or someone else. Or that you use the door frame for it because you can’t reach the itchy spot on your back. Very different from tickling. Because we cannot tolerate that from someone else.

Scratching an itch: what does it do in your body?

What does scratching cause itching in the body? It had hardly been researched so far. But scientists at the University of Minnesota shed some light on those processes in 2009. The main actors in this regard? Specialized nerve cells in the spinal cord . Each of those cells is responsible for a defined sensory field on the skin. If it itches anywhere in this area, the cell sends electrical signals to the brain. If the same field is then scratched, the nerve cell changes its signal pattern. Apparently, activities at the level of the spinal cord convert what we feel when itching.

Scratching only suppresses itching for 30 seconds

And the researchers also explained why scratching usually only provides short-term relief. Thirty seconds after scratching, the nerve cells return to their old signal pattern and report the itch to the brain again.

Chronic itching: almost one in five people suffer from it

Research shows that almost 20% of people suffer from long-lasting and disturbing itching. But only half of them go to the doctor about it. According to the researchers, the problem is grossly underestimated and downplayed. According to some dermatologists, Chronic itching has developed into a full-blown public disease. In our eastern neighbors it has even led to the establishment of the first interdisciplinary Pruritus treatment center . Pruritus is the scientific name for itching that lasts at least six weeks.

What causes chronic itching?

Chronic itching can have several causes, ranging from:

  • skin conditions such as eczema;
  • internal diseases such as kidney failure;
  • neurological or psychological disorders;
  • up to (in rare cases) even a tumor in the head.

There may also be a combination of causes. Scientists are only at the beginning of the research.

An interdisciplinary approach is often desirable

When patients describe the type of itching, its frequency and duration, this often puts the dermatologist on the right track. But to treat the actual cause, collaboration between different specialists is usually required. These causes can be a kidney or nerve disorder or depression.

Chronic itching puts patients in social isolation

Victims of chronic itching are often stigmatized. Bloody and scratched skin is repulsive to many people. The result is that many patients withdraw from their social environment. A vicious circle threatens. Fortunately, dermatologists now have many practical tips for everyday relief of complaints. But medical science obviously wants to reach the same level of knowledge regarding chronic itching as other common diseases, such as high blood pressure.