Do You Have to Scratch That Itch??

Itching is “a most peculiar and diabolical sensation.” Whether it’s from mosquito bites, prickly dry skin, even random tingly feelings, itchiness rouses you out your day or rest with insistent demands to scratch or just make it stop.

Years ago, itching kept me awake. True to my focus on rest, I started to pay attention to what was going on, so I could see what tools might help.

Three rhesus monkeys, grooming or scratching each otherHere’s what I noticed: It’s different than pain. With pain you can choose to take action. With itching you HAVE to.

I thought it was tied to the brain’s motor cortex, and regular pain isn’t.

Turns out, I’m right (what a pleasant sensation!) per Atul Gawande, renowned author, surgeon, and public-health researcher.

In his recent article on itching, he shared that a group of Swedish and German researchers inserted ultra-thin metal electrodes in volunteers to discover the type of nerve specific for itch.

Each pain nerve fiber covers a millimetre-size territory (about ⅓ of the width of a penny). But “a single itch fiber can pick up an itchy sensation more than three inches away.” Itch fibers also have extraordinarily low conduction speeds, which explains why itchiness is slow to build and to subside.

Itching lights up your brain

Itchiness lights up your brain in several ways at the same time. Your brain stimulates:

  • Your emotional responses, reflecting the disagreeable nature of itch.
  • Where on your body the sensation occurs.
  • And irresistible urges in limbic and motor areas—same place that are stimulated by addictions.

They all reflect the ferocious impulse to scratch. (I’m curious if you have “itch” fibers when you want to cough as well. We’ll see when Dr. Gawande writes something about that!)

Just your brain can make you itch. I remember when my daughter had lice over a decade ago, and my scalp still gets tingly.

What can you do to soothe the itch?

Let’s look at options when itchiness is driving you haywire.

First, we need to honor that scratching works, but only temporarily and can be dangerous to your skin. (It really does seem like all the other compulsive behaviors — they work short term, but not in the long run.) Rubbing the area may be an intermediate option.

Noticing gives moments of distance to that urge to scratch. A technique in meditation is to notice the urge to scratch before responding to it. Interestingly, the desperation fades… returns… fades… and often disappears. I like to think of it as welcoming and even wanting the itch.

This doesn’t discount the value of remedies. These can be useful, depending on the cause of the itch:

  • Medical ones like antihistamines, hydrocortisone cream, even antidepressants for a chronic problem.
  • High quality moisturizers
  • Aloe vera gel
  • Colloidal oatmeal in lotions, soaps, or baths
  • Ice or cold packs
  • Apple cider vinegar, honey, thyme, basil, and/or baking soda (Check with Dr. Internet for when and how to use.)
  • Witch hazel

And then there’s your brain — it can make you itch, it can also soothe you. Notice any little itches in your skin, and play with what imaginary resources would soothe it. Can you see some elves spraying your favorite color from inside your body, and/or vacuuming away the irritation? Feel yourself lying in the cool water of a lake. Swallow some magic placebo medicine that heals. Or ask your “fairy godmother” to sprinkle you with gentle numbing and healing fairy dust.

The more you play with your imagination, the more it will respond. Honor your body and reactions, and you have a few more options that to just scratch.

small yellow star with blue outline

Wishing you smooth sensations,


The Itch by Dr. Atul Gawande

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