Never underestimate the power and the agony of itching, or our inability to stop it.
I learned that many years ago at the impressionable age of 18, as I shared a hospital room with an elderly patient who suffered chronic, severe vaginal itching. If the thought of that doesn’t make you wince, this might – I could hear the attending and resident physicians standing just outside the door of our room talk about her as if we, the patients, weren’t there. They didn’t have a clue how to help her. So they decided the problem must be all in her head. One said in an irritated voice, “Let her go home and itch.”
That was 1974. Oh, how times have changed. Today, physicians and researchers are recognizing that chronic itch is like chronic pain – once it is present, it can permanently change the central nervous system to make treatment much more difficult, Dr. Timothy Berger explained at Skin Disease Education Foundation‘s Las Vegas Dermatology Seminar. We might begin to see treatments that act not just peripherally but centrally.
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) on Oct. 29, 2010, held its first roundtable discussion on pruritus (itching), said Dr. Berger, of the University of California, San Francisco. A summary of the meeting and a list of attendees will be posted on the NIAMS Web site before the end of 2010, NIAMS media liaison Trish Reynolds told me.
Pruritus experts have expressed interest in following the example set by some European centers to create major referral centers for itch, much like pain referral centers, Dr. Berger said. Patients with difficult itching would be referred to these centers, which would collect and analyze data, store tissue samples, and tackle pruritus in a much more organized and – one hopes – successful way.
“We’re now at the point where we might be able to do something about itch,” he said.
Now, that’s what I call relief.
Disclosure: Skin Disease Education Foundation and my employer, International Medical News Group, are both owned by Elsevier.