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Itching is such a basic physical sensation that you wouldn't guess it's actually quite complicated and even mysterious. Only recently were fundamental discoveries made about what happens when we itch and scratch.

Scientists discovered the itch sensation is not a form of pain as previously thought and it does not share the same nerve pathways. That makes sense when you consider we withdraw from a painful area and touch an itchy one.

Scientists learned that the sensation actually has its own nerve and brain networks that involve the spinal cord.

Did your hand ever reach over to scratch an itch even before your brain realized what was going on?

That's the spinal nerve cells at work and makes our scratch reaction a reflex. The nerve pathway for itch runs from your skin to your spine and then the signals go up to your brain.

That's where it gets even more interesting. In the study, scientists wanted to know what was happening in the brain when we scratch.

They used an MRI to track blood flow to the brain to determine which areas were affected. They found that brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and posterior cingulate cortex were both reduced.

The anterior region is associated with negative experiences like burning your hand and the posterior region is associated with memory. That means when you scratch, the emotional misery of the itch is relieved and you feel pleasure.

While activity in those areas of the brain were reduced, the prefrontal cortex became more active. That's the front part of the brain which is associated with pleasure and obsessive behaviors.

The hope is with studies like this relief can be brought to people debilited by chronic itch. Diabetes, kidney dialysis, and even brain tumors can cause incessant itching.

Just think the next time you have an itch: what if scratching didn't make it better?

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For more information…

MedlinePlus brings together authoritative information from NLM, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other government agencies and health-related organizations. MedlinePlus also has extensive information about drugs, an illustrated medical encyclopedia, interactive patient tutorials, and latest health news. The section about itching is here.

An extensive article in the New Yorker written in lay language about itching the effect it can have on the lives of people can be read here.

Scientific American has a very nice and comprehensive article entitled "Chronic Itching: Causes and Cures" that is very well written and very readable. It provides insight into the mechanisms behind scratching and the neural pathways involved.
For more information…

The Merck Online Medical Library offers information about itching here.


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