Chronic itch: Every bit as debilitating and depressing as chronic pain

If you’ve had it, you would know. Chronic itchiness -- often the result of skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema or allergies -- disrupts sleep, dims pleasure and limits activities. Just as much as chronic pain does.

Now it’s official: A study published online this week by the Archives of Dermatology has found that those who suffer from unrelenting itch, generally for six months to a year, have been brought every bit as low by their condition as have chronic-pain sufferers.

These findings, the study’s authors say, suggest that chronic itch is “the skin equivalent of pain.”

And like chronic pain, chronic itch appears to go hand in hand with depression. The relationship between depression and the two chronic conditions is undoubtedly complex: People who are depressed seem to tolerate pain and itching less well than those who are not; but the nagging distraction of chronic pain or chronic itch also seems to trigger depression in many.


Like pain, itchiness varies greatly from one person to another, and is difficult to convey. Both are also devilishly resistant to treatment, and both are clearly exacerbated by stress. The study found that, as with patients who have chronic pain, social support matters in how a sufferer of chronic itch tolerates his or her symptoms. Among both sets of patients, those who were unmarried tended to suffer most acutely.

There is one major difference between chronic pain and chronic itch, said the authors of the study, which was led by Dr. Seema P. Kini of Emory University. Whereas the diagnosis, treatment and impact of chronic pain have been extensively studied, persistent itchiness has undergone little scrutiny by researchers. The agony of the itchy is not widely understood.

The study surveyed 137 patients being seen at Emory University Medical Center in Atlanta for chronic pain and 73 who were consulting doctors there for itchiness. Patients were asked to rate the impact of their condition on their quality of life, how long they had been experiencing pain or itch, and to provide demographic information about themselves.

“Addressing support networks in addition to developing new therapies may improve the quality of life of itchy patients,” the researchers concluded.