Sunday, September 19, 2010

Those Itchy Trigger Fingers or Why Do We Itch?

If I had a dime for every time someone without eczema has told me not to scratch I would be balling with P. Diddy and Oprah. Okay, not really. I'll just say I've been told to stop scratching many times in my life. It can be frustrating to hear when your body is telling you to stop everything you're doing and just scratch.

So, why do our bodies do this? What is that itchy feeling anyway?

The itchy (pruritus) feeling is our body way of telling us that there's something irritating the skin. Scratching is a response to activation of our sensory neurons in the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin). Nerve receptors from the skin send signal to our spinal cord to the cerebral cortex in our brain.  The same way we react to pain - (with withdrawal) is somewhat similar to how the body reacts to an itch. Both are an unpleasant feeling and our bodies want to do away with these sensations. So, scratching is actually a very natural defense mechanism.

Receptors in the dermis of your skin send signals up your spinal code via your nerves and then to your brain.

Scratching may give some relief either by telling the body that the irritant has been removed. The other trick is scratching may cause pain to the skin, diverting attention away from the itchy sensation. The problem is that this relief is usually only temporary and itch/scratch cycle repeats itself.
Furthermore once we keep scratching, histamines are released from the body and this is where redness, pain and swelling come in to play. Our bodies release the chemicals (histamine) from the cells cause by reaction of our immune system. Again, the body's normal reaction is to protect itself from allergens no matter how harmless they may really be.
click to enlarge image

Now we know why medications like Claritin, Zyrtec and steroid creams such as hydrocortisone are used. These are all known as anti-histamine medications. These sort of  medications block the histamines from attaching to the receptors/mass cells that cause the allergic reactions. 

Since this blog is called "Natural and Factual" I should be including some known 'natural' anti-histamines that may help:

Vitamin C
Grape Seed Extract
Green Tea
Dong Quai
Milk Thistle 
Flax Seed Oil

Don't take my word for it though. Do your research and ask your doctor and/or nutritionists about what alternatives may be best for you. (Pycnogenol, grape seed extract and flax seed oil were all suggested to me by my primary care physician.) I will also make sure to give a break down on each of these natural alternatives  in future blog posts.

Knowing the science behind why we itch and scratch can be a great start to understanding your bodies better, helping to decrease the pain and irritation we can cause ourselves. I want us to take control of what we can. For instance if you feel an itch coming on, reach for your cream and emollients instead of scratching.  Scratching causes tears and bleeding in the skin, which then requires an antibiotic to prevent infection.  Dr. Neal Schultz even suggested placing a cold compress or menthol emollient onto the skin, which alleviates itching and distracts those ready receptors from taking more action.

I hope this piece helps as much as I intend it to.
Here's to becoming the master of your domain!

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