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An Itch That Goes On And On…..

December 19th, 2007 · 44 Comments

A reader Stephanie writes:
I had a terrible experience with chronic itch, which is (I believe) rarer and less respected than chronic pain.  But I can tell you, it was horrifying, and from what I hear about effects of and treatments for chronic pain, chronic itch is quite similar.  It would be nice if chronic pain professionals would include chronic itch in their purview.

Thanks, Stephanie, for an interesting question.  I don’t know all that much about chronic itch, but here are some thoughts.  I’d be interested in readers’ knowledge as well, or more from Stephanie about her experiences, to share in the comments.

Like in chronic pain, you have to determine if chronic itch is a symptom of a problem, or the problem itself.  Let’s look at this more closely:  Chronic pain can be a symptom of an underlying disease, e.g. cancer or multiple sclerosis.  Or chronic pain can result from a disease process in the pain systems themselves, e.g. CRPS.  Similarly, chronic itch can be a symptom of a minor problem, e.g. dry skin, or a more serious disease, e.g. kidney problems.  Or, itch can be a disease of the “itch” system itself.

We used to think that itch sensations travel along the same nerve pathways as pains do.  However, scientists more recently discovered a separate set of nerves, with wide reach throughout the skin, that seem to be dedicated only to itch.

Another connection between itch and pain is that the body’s opioid system seems to be involved.  There are opioid medications (also called narcotics), e.g. morphine, as well as opioids that occur naturally in your body.  We’ve known for a long time that a side effect of narcotic medication can be itch.  So this led scientists to study how medication that blocks this opioid system might help pain.  And guess what…  in some cases, it does help significantly.


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44 responses so far ↓

  • Marijke // Dec 28, 2007 at 5:39 am

    I happened across this post in your blog and I can so identify with the poster. I have one spot on my left shoulder that is beyond itchy. It’s worse than any pain I’ve experienced and I can’t get relief other than taking an anti-anxiety med.

    People don’t understand that an itch is really something that can drive you around the bend. You make good points in your response and when I see my dr in January, I’m going to be more pro-active about doing something about this.
    Thank you.

  • SueB // Jan 9, 2008 at 10:25 am

    Sometimes itch an be an indicator of an irritated nerve. I have scoliosis (curvature of the spine). You can’t see it to look at me, but one shoulder is higher than the other and my hips are crooked, too. All of my adult life I have had itching and burning along the inner edge of my right shoulder blade. No rash or anything, just itch and burn. This is my “low” shoulder, so both my osteopath and the massage therapist who treat me think it has something to do with my bones rubbing against a nerve. Sometimes Neurontin (an anticonvulsant) helps this itch. I’ve also heard of people who got relief for this kind of itch from Tegretol, another anticonvulsant. Massage also helps, probably because it physically pushes the structures that are rubbing away from each other.

  • How to Cope with Pain // Jan 9, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    SueB, thanks for your comment. Very interesting idea. And anticonvulsants should help nerve irritation, so it’s interesting that the kind you tried, Neurontin, does help for you.

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • Lisa K // Jun 10, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    Are there any side effects from taking Neurontin?

  • How to Cope with Pain // Jun 11, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Lisa, for many people at low doses, there are no side effects of Neurontin. At higher doses, the common side effects of Neurontin include sedation, dizzyness, nausea, and sometimes mild swelling. In my practice, many people also complain of “fuzzy” thinking, with problems such as word-finding difficulty.

    Be sure to talk with your own doctor about your particular situation.

  • Terri // Jun 17, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    I have had chronic itching for 1 yr. 4 mos. I may have had 3 days during this time that I didn’t itch. I have taken so many variations of drugs, antihistamines (up to 175 mg per day), prednisone and have stopped all medications…..still no relief. It is absolutely driving me insane and most days I spend crying because I am so miserable and I feel like my nerves are shot from enduring all this. I have tried Gold Bond Body Lotion in the xtra strength, Presley’s anti-itch sprays, rubbing alcohol…….nothing helps. I have had test after test which are all inconclusive. A biopsy had been done on the skin which only came back to say “possible drug eruption.” Any ideas anyone?

  • How to Cope with Pain // Jun 17, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Terri, sorry, but that’s outside my range of expertise, so can’t make specific recommendations.. Have you seen a neurologist, instead of treating it as a skin problem?

  • Pat // Sep 15, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    I have endured extremely nerve wracking itching for the last ten years (both arms and back of neck). At times it has been so “painful” I could have torn into my arm. I tried accupuncture to no avail. I also went to John Hopkins and they had no remedy. The itch did subside for two years but just within the last month has returned. The only thing that helps is to freeze the area where the itch occurs. The doctor said that I could damage my skin this way but I’d rather have damaged skin than to live with this. My husband and I both carry plastic zip lock bags for whenever the itch occurs (I never know when). We stop, get ice and I freeze the area.

  • How to Cope with Pain // Sep 15, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    Pat, a new medication, Relistor, which is approved to treat the severe constipation of opiates, has been shown to help with itch, although it’s not approved for this problem. This may be an idea to talk with your doctors about. I’ll be posting about Relistor soon.

  • Jan // Sep 29, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Hello. I’ve had a chronic itch for nearly four years. It is over more than half my body. One day it is strongest over my back and shoulders, another over my hips and stomach. The right side of my right breast also itches. I’ve scratched until I bleed when it got out of control.
    I’ve been to a dermatologist who took a sample of my skin for the lab – no organisms were found. If I take a hot shower, everything is re-ignited – although a very hot shower relieves the itching for a period of time.
    I’ve been a potter for 35 years. I’m 73 years old. The only thing that has helped is a cortisone cream called Triamcinolone. I try not to use it too often because I understand it is a steroid. There is no rash – just evidence of where I’ve been scratching.

  • james // Oct 13, 2009 at 2:26 am

    I have had this itch for the last 4+ years. Horrible is the only word I have in mind to describe it. My sleep at nights and my career during the days both have been affected badly by this.

    Initially it was my haemoglobin which was too low and was given a simple syrup for a few months but that did not help the itch to go away for good, then my blood tests showed an increased Bilirubin level. And was told that this is causing the itch and was given a simple pill called Liv 52 DS, I am in India at the moment. The itch has reduced a bit but not gone completely.

    Sonography has revealed nothing unsual in terms of kidneys, pancreas, gall bladder and liver.

    I have been told that this is not serious or life threatening at all. But only I know as to how irritating this has been for the last 4+ yrs.

    If you search with two keywords “Bilirubin”+”itch” on Google than you will find a lot of links to pages that discuss itch taking place in people with an elevated amount of a substance called Bilirubin in the liver. Eat less meat, wine, spices, chillies, oil, fat, coffee and believe me this helps.

  • Larry // Dec 8, 2009 at 1:29 am

    I have this same kind of itch at the bottom of my left shoulder blade, just out of reach. I’ve had it for almost a year now. Drives me crazy. There’s no mark or anything visible. I can get it with a back scratcher—that takes the itch away for awhile. I take comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one with this condition. I’m hoping it will eventually go away.

  • jackie // Feb 26, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    I take pain medication for back problems. About 2 weeks ago I started itching. It seems to get worse when I take my clothes off at night before and after I shower. I also have hives. I never had a problem before.

  • How to Cope with Pain // Feb 27, 2010 at 8:13 am

    You can ask your doctors if it might be an allergy or side effect of medication; or it might be unrelated.

  • Patrice // Mar 27, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    I had gullblater surgey two weeks ago, last week I begin itching all over my body, once it starts, it i even touch it, it will itch uncontrolably, and welts up like a hive, it started with my hands now all over. I am taken benadryl, and got a shot from my MD she also put me on Methylprednisolone, none seems to be doing any good. It is to the point of being painful. HELP PLEASE

  • How to Cope with Pain // Mar 27, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    Patrice, I can’t give medical advice for individual readers here. But I’d refer you back to your doctor right away. Has your doctor considered a medication allergy?

  • mariam // Mar 29, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    i have this itching for over four months on both sides of my shoulders and at the back of my neck,it itches to the extent that sometimes i experience partial paralysis on the right side of my leg and arms.i have taken anti anxiety drugs such as KALMS,FLUOXETINE CAPSULE,Canesten HC cream prescribed by my doctor,all to no avail.i am in need of solution anybody with a concrete and permanent solution should contact me through:karena0@yahoo.co.uk

  • Harlan // Jul 26, 2010 at 9:31 am

    I was able to pinpoint that the cause of my itch was mainly COFFEE, which is really a widely used drug in itself. Coffee has a myriad of ingredients besides just the coffee to “keep it fresh and flavorable.”

    I sincerely hope this helps.

    (This comment was modified slightly by How to Cope with Pain to be more medically appropriate.

  • Rachel // Dec 16, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    My chronic itch on my thighs and upper arms is worst at night in bed. I’ve had it nearly a year now and it comes and goes in severity. My GP has given me antihistamine tablets, Dermacool gel, and not some anti anxiety tablets called nortryptiline but nothing works. The itch makes me suicidal at times its so painful. Occasionally there’s a rash like hives but its never in evidence when I get an appointment at the surgery. Once, driven mad in the night, I had a very hot shower and poured neat bleach on my legs and this helped enormously and allowed me to sleep. My doc was horrified and told me never to do it againbut as I sit here I am tempted to give it another try as I swear I’m burning up.

  • lauren // Apr 13, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    I can absolutely identify with rachel. I had a very bad car accident in 2003 which left me partially blinded in one eye with some severe nerve damage to the left side of my face. Since then I have endured the worst itch all over my body that I can only describe as hell. I never know where the next itch area will come from and regularly scratch open areas of my body which become bruised and trap blood underneath my skin. Doctors told me it was eutachera which was from the trauma of the accident and prescribed zyrtec. It helped for about a year – but didn’t do much after. I assume I became resilient to it.
    On particularly bad episodes, I’ve resolved using sandpaper to open up the area and then douse the area with an astringent. Surgical spirits, bleach, metholated spirits, turpentine, and when I’m desperate and have nothing else – lemon.
    I know its terrible for me, but I think you get to a point where you would rather suffer the pain than deal with an incessant “itch”

  • Kelly // Apr 30, 2011 at 6:28 am

    I have been breaking out in bumps that itch insanely for almost a year. At first it was just my legs, then it spread to my arms, back stomach, face and now scalp. The biopsy showed spongiotic eczema. The dermatologist thinks its a drug hypersensitivity. I am on a lot of medications for many disorders. Recently, I quit taking Lamictal but was told it could take up to a month to get out of my system. Potent steroid ointment doesn’t help. I also get very hot and nauseated. These leave big lesions that still itch as they scab. I am sick, frightened, and need some relief! I live in my pj’s in bed.

  • diane // May 8, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    ive suffered 13 yrs now with a cronic itch on my vulvor, had lots ov things done and wore the medication list out, its a horrible thing to live with my life is so ristricted cant go far and im in pain, its so embarrasing too, ive a 12 yr old daughter and im single mum she puts up with a lot me gettin aggertated most ov the day, ive seen 4 differant specialist from diff hospitals with no joy, the last one said i have to live with it as theirs nothing else they can do for me im so un happy please does any one no ov anything, im on gabbapentin and eurax cream that helps a little

  • Gail // Jun 22, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    I have a chronic itch on one spot on my back. I’ve scratched it so much, I have changed the pigment of my skin – it is now dark in the area I scratch. Sometimes menthol cream helps, but not always.

  • Chris // Jun 23, 2011 at 11:58 am

    I’ve been fighting itchiness for about 2.5 years, all over my body, but mostly on my lower back and sides, stomach, upper arms, thighs, calves, ankles and feet. I understand the desperation expressed in so many of the notes here. the dermatologists said mine was just eczema, but the chronic persistence made me believe it was coming from inside. I’ve been seeing an allergist for about 1.5 years, and we’ve been targeting yeast overgrowth and abundant bad bacteria in the gut. the yeast is gone, and it’s taken several courses of antibiotics to kill the bacteria (it’s still not completely gone!). currently the itch has subsided to “bearable” and it no longer makes me crazy most of the day and night, but it has not completely gone away. I believe the gut bacteria had spread throughout my body via leaky gut and were trying to be expelled through my skin, thus causing the itching. interestingly, I sometimes get relief by applying simple hand-sanitizer, which is a bacteria killer!! fyi, abnormal levels of yeast and bacteria in the gut can be identified and monitored by lab testing of stool samples. I hope this is the culprit, because the itching is maddening!

  • Cally // Jul 25, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    I have a SERIOUS itch in the upper right quadrant of my back – mostly in the shoulder blade area. It drives me absolutely insane, but if I scratch it very vigorously with a scratcher of some kind, it will almost halt it for a while, but then it comes right back. I fell on my back – landed on the edge of a concrete step, and my back has pain in one particular spot for the past 15 years. Don’t know what to do about it.

  • Cally // Jul 25, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    If you are itching worse, or mainly, at night, perhaps you have been exposed to the demodex mite, which lives BELOW the skin, causing intense itching – it can be on your scalp, in your eyes, all over your body. You can get it from sleeping with pets that might have contracted it, or from other people, especially if your immune system is not functioning properly. It is worse itching at night…look it up and see if you think you might have unwittingly contracted this pest. It is HARD to get rid of, but it can be done.

  • Nancy // Jul 30, 2011 at 12:41 am

    I have had great success using “Sarna” lotion on my itchy spots.

  • Jen // Oct 9, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    This message is for Diane – I also have dealt with chronic itchiness of the vulva for about 15 years and have found that the numbing ointment Lidocaine works the best for relief. Ask your doctor to prescribe it and use it as needed. Yale just came out with a study on the peptide Bam8-22 which they found out is causing the chronic itch so hopefully someone will come up with something more effective for all of us soon…

  • Ross // Jan 20, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    I’ve had chronic itching all over my body for 5 years, driving me to the brink of insanity. I tried most meds and creams inc steroids. The best relief I ever had was going to the Canary Islands, each time my skin cleared up. I would also get relief from a very hot bath which seemed to hyper stimulate my itching for about 10 seconds, after this my skin was calm for a few hours. I used to then apply mositure creams. I began to realise that about 4-5 hours after the cream was applied my itch would go off the scale. So for the last 6 months I stopped using any creams, and thankfully my skin is now 90% normal. Don’t give up !!

  • elaine // Jan 24, 2012 at 2:09 am

    Its got to be something more than a skin issue…the last 4 yrs I have suffered from the
    itch on my right lower shoulder blade just out of reach. I alway have a back scratcher and a pair of sissors to use if I’m unable to sit still–I tear my skin up, get scabs tear the scabs up,get blood
    then put a lidocaine patch on it. It feels like its a nerve problem since it never moves to a new place. If anyone has any other ideas please pass them along, I am so exhausted from this thing, I need to be rewired!

  • Neva // Feb 10, 2012 at 8:50 am

    Try a baby aspirin. I am not kidding. I am 38 and have had sporadic horrible days of itchy legs and arms for about 5 years now without any rhyme or reason and no hives. My father (didn’t happend till later in his life) has the same problem but only his legs. This an extrodinarly annoying invisible ailment!! Then one day, I just took an aspirin and usually within in 10 mins … the itching is gone! Only on 2-3 occasions I have taken 2 aspirin. While I wait for it to kick in .. I DO NOT SCRATCH OR RUB the offending areas. Nowadays, I am very keen to sensing early tingles and head them off before its a full blown 4 alarm fire! If you do not have any bleeding/clotting issues or stomach ulcer issues try this and let me know if it helped you . I am going to get to the bottom of this so I can eventually educate an MD!

  • Rosie // Mar 3, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    My itch at the shoulder blade along with pain some days just flared up. It’s been going on for about 3 weeks. I’m glad I’m not going crazy! I do have MS, but that itchy feeling is usually all over and does go away. This one is just hanging on. I don’t take any medication so my is not from that.
    I’ll try the baby aspirin.

  • Dani // Mar 24, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Chronic itching in left arm. Recently I tried LIPIKAR BAUME AP by LA ROCHE-POSAY. Seems very effective in first few days!

  • Scott // Jul 28, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    In ’09 i was in a accident and in hosptial for 6 weeks. Induced i was out for 3of them. 5 ribs broke right at the spine with 11 total brakes in those ribs, both leg bones below knees broke. All of this in right side of my body. I remember coming to when they lowered the phentinol(pain med) with the iching then, just to the left of my right sholder blade. It gets worse every year. I became addicted to pain meds. stoped taking those and started suboxine, im almost completed that program on a very low dose but the itch is getting worse. I was hoping it was the meds but im starting to doubt that theory.

  • Kathy // Aug 16, 2012 at 2:17 am

    WOW!! What a thrill to find this site! I truly thought I was going crazy! I’ve NEVER heard of such a bizarre thing as this incessant itching! Unfortunately, no one has the magic answer…what kind of a doctor can I talk to? A dermatologist? A neurologist? I’ve found temporary relief with colloidal oatmeal. My itchy spot is about a 4″square on the outside of my left arm. Last night I wanted to pour ACID on it…ANYTHING to stop the itch! I had a pack of Aveeno Skin Relief Bath Treatment that is supposed to be used in a bathtub…but I made a paste and applied it with a damp wash cloth. It helped last night but doesn’t seem to work as well tonight. I just took a 81 mg baby asprin so maybe that will help. Ugghhh! How can I get relief????

  • Marian // Sep 21, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Hi everyone! 27 years of itch here! Tried EVERYTHING….except that baby aspirin….my itch is in my arms mostly….Look up brachioradialpruritis…I have had 2 injections in my neck at a spine center (my latest in my search for a cure)…and my itch is not as severe and I am taking 600 mgs of gabapentin a day…I see doc next week again and want to know if shot is helping or is medicine? This is an AWFUL thing to live with I know….It comes and goes, no rhyme or reason…ice is the only thing that makes it subside….write to me if you would like…God bless all of you

  • Jean // Jan 11, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Jean, OMG, thank god for this site, I will sleep,a lot better from now on, I’ve had this itch in my left Shoulder for over a year, in fact since I had a knee replacement , after reading all the comments, I noticed that no one mentioned another symptom which really bothers me as well as the god awful itch, when my shoulder is itchy it contracts kinda tightens then it will burn up, and then it tightens again and it will feel freezing cold deep inside, and I’ve noticed that the sensation is now traveling up to my ear and left side of my face, I would be interested to know if anyone else has the same symptoms as me and do they know of anything that might help me.
    I think knowing that this can be caused by taking medications has help me, because at first I was thinking all sorts, but because I suffer from acute nerve damage and other problems, I take loads of meds ie”mst oramoph, (opioids) gabberpentin.prednisolone.and lots more. It’s got to be caused by this. Thanks everyone for opening my eyes to this, I no longer feel alone, and if I have to live with this at least I no it’s not going to kill me LOL, xx

  • Polly // Mar 29, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    Okay so I don’t know how to say this because I’m scared this “itching” could be cancer signs but then again maybe it’s because I googled it and nothing. Okay first of all the itching started like 4 or 5 months ago. It happened with a “zit” that appeared on my back under the left shoulder blade. I thought it was from wearing my bra and it being hot out and me sweating. I shower daily, or take baths, so I figured I was cleanly enough. I popped the “zit”. Then slowly but surely more appeared near this one like maybe 2 and then the other shoulder had 2 or three, and each one became scabs, two of them a little deep (like 1/2 inch into the skin). Then the same things appeared one by one here and there above my rear, around the butt cheek, on the sides of both hips, and I don’t understand. The ones on the bottom don’t itch much and I know itching is a “sign” of healing — but omg do the shoulder ones itch. So bad I can’t help but itch them and then that reopens the wound and I bleed. I think I’m going to have scars for sure and I’m humiliated to tell my doctor becasue it looks like I’m a gross person. Help.

  • How to Cope with Pain // Mar 29, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Have you consulted with a dermatologist (skin doctor)?

  • marjorie zimmerman // Jul 28, 2013 at 11:40 am

    try 1500mg ester C with isoquercetin (3 caps at 33mg each). the latter is made by integrative therapeutics, inc. it absolutely works to lower histamine level which is probably involved in most of the above cases. in my husband’s case, it only last about 3 1/2 – 4 hrs and i wake in the night to give it to him or he will believe bugs are biting him in the bed (NOT TRUE!). better than benedryl which knocks you out. read up on histamines…there is more than one kind. his came from getting sensitized from a med patch, either the glue or the med or both. or because of the excess dopa he gets for parkinson’s which is toxic but necessary. either way, the c combo works like a charm.

  • marjorie zimmerman // Jul 28, 2013 at 11:43 am

    also, topical relief until the vitamins kick in is what i call our ‘magic cream’…..arnica gel, available in any health food store. fabulous for just about anything.

  • BoBo // Dec 6, 2013 at 9:21 am

    I have chronic itch /scratch /claw until it bleeds on my back.I have scoliosis, RA, diabetes etc.. I also take opoids for my back.My itching is so severe my back is scared for life.Been to dermatologists, took a biopsy revealing drug eruption..Cure is to not itch! Anyone knows that this issue we are going through drives us CRAZY! Lol. Not funny. My relief is ice packs..It helps some.

  • DON // Aug 16, 2014 at 12:09 am

    I KNOW YOU WILL THINK IM CRAZY BUT I SUFFERED FOR YEARS WITH THE ITCH ,IT WAS SO BAD SOMETIMES I FELT LIKE TAKING A KNIFE AND REMOVING THE SKIN,.NOW HERE IS WHAT IS HARD TO BELIEVE ; GET LOCAL HONEY FROM YOUR AREA AND TAKE A T SPOON TWICE A DAY AND IN A WEEK YOUR ITCH WILL BE GONE. DOCTORS KNOW THIS AND REFUSE TO PRESCRIBE FOR REASONS IM SURE YOU UNDERSTAND. TRY IT YOU WIL NOT BELEIVE HOW GREAT YOU WILL FEEL, BE SURE IT IS HONEY FROM YOUR LOCAL WHERE THE BEES GET NECTER FROM LOCAL FLOWERS.

  • Kiri // Sep 3, 2014 at 7:21 am

    I’ve had some really crazy itching for about 6 months now. I think it’s a side effect of whatever it is I’m suffering from – I’m starting to think is nerve damage.

    My symptoms: Dizziness (light headed/room spinning), Vertigo (loss of ability to tell up and down/left from right), intermitten loss of hearing (severity/degree differs, as does the length of the episodes), migraines – including occular migraines, vision interruptions – black spots that go by from left to right (like an animal running in front of your car type of feeling where there’s no real form because it goes too fast).

    I had these for about a year and then came the next set of symptoms on top of it: burning in my legs and face, then came to itching to accompany it. The burning is worse than having a 3rd degree sun burn (had one in high school) and the itching makes me wish for the pain instead.

    Then came the contusions and pain. It started in my knees – no fall or impact present. My right knee suddenly had a sprained interior tendon and under my right knee cap there were multiple contusions (the MRI was even done 3.5 months after the pain started). Then this traveled up into my thighs and into my groin and hips and then into my lower back and back side of the ribs.

    The pain comes and goes. Sometimes it lasts a couple of days, sometimes it last for many weeks. Sometimes it’s gone for a month, sometimes 2 days in between episodes.

    Today the itching on the soles of my feet began. It’s like the itching I’ve had in my legs/face but worse. It’s so deep it can’t be scratched and it’s under the harder part of my soles, so scratching is impossible.

    The pain and itching are completely disabling and due to all of the above mention symptoms, I’ve been off of work since May 2013. I’m filing to Total and Permanent Disablement insurance but have yet to receive a diagnoses from my General Practitioner, ENT, immunology or neurologist.

    I’ve had many MRI’s done and all came out clean. All blood tests are clean.

    Medications I’m on: Metformin to treat insulin resistance caused by Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.

    Any help with ANY of this would be amazing.

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