The Unsolved Mystery of Itching

July 01, 2008 02:50 PM
by Shannon Firth
A case study of chronic itching leaves neurologists and researchers scratching for answers.

30-Second Summary

A recent article in The New Yorker explored the bizarre, tragic story of a woman known as M who suffered from a mysterious, perpetual itching that baffled doctors. One night in her sleep, M scratched clear through to her brain.

A frustrated M, having been hospitalized, cuffed to a bed, and forced to wear a foam helmet, said, “They kept telling me I had O.C.D.” Psychiatrists continually asked questions like, “As a child, when you walked down the street did you count the lines?”

Neurologist Anne Louise Oaklander reassured M that she didn’t have OCD. Instead, Oaklander hypothesized that the condition was neurological.

In 1997, German and Swedish researchers discovered the nerve that signaled itching and established that it differed from receptors for pain. Still, M had lost almost all her nerve receptors. If nerves are responsible for our perceptions, why hadn’t the itch diminished?

Atul Gawande, the author of the New Yorker piece, explained in an NPR radio interview that people don’t feel pain from simply talking about putting their hands in a flame. However, describe an ant crawling up someone’s back and the listener will feel it. “There’s something more interesting to our perceptions than just the fact that you trigger a nerve, it goes up the spinal cord to your brain and it rings a bell in your brain,” Gawande said.

Gawande consulted V.S. Ramanchandran, who explored another mysterious sensory condition called “phantom limb pain.” Since 1995, Dr. V.S. Ramanchandran has used mirror boxes to treat patients with phantom limb pain.

Meanwhile, itching’s semipsychological nature can also be evidenced in its side effects: depression and fatigue.

Understanding the science of itching

Audio: ‘The Mystery and Power of the Itch’

Background: Definition of an itch, effects of itching, mirror boxes

Related Topics: Other mystery diseases of the senses: Tinnitus and Morgellons


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