Agony of the Itch

Chronic pruritus, or itching, can be just as disabling as chronic pain

Anyone who has ever tried to ignore one can tell you: an itch can be just as irritating and frustrating as pain.

A recent study by Emory researchers has shown that patients who endure chronic pruritus (an itching sensation) are affected in much the same way as patients who deal with chronic pain. Data from the study were published online by Archives of Dermatology in June 2011.

“Chronic pruritus can have a devastating effect on patients, causing health problems such as depression, anxiety, and interruption of sleep,” says Suephy Chen, lead investigator for the study and associate professor of dermatology at Emory’s School of Medicine. “Although it is believed that the condition may be fairly common, and it shares many similarities to chronic pain, pruritus has not been widely studied for its effect on patients’ quality of life.”

To determine the impact of pruritus, Chen and her colleagues used a quality-of-life measure called “utilities” to assess men and women who had been experiencing either puritus or pain for six or more weeks. The data showed that the mean utility score of patients with chronic pruritus was 0.87, indicating that the average patient was willing to forfeit 13 percent of life expectancy to live without pruritus. This suggests a considerable burden of disease and a quality of life impact comparable to that of chronic pain.

Significant social relationships—such as marriage—seemed to have a positive effect on the symptoms, perhaps by aiding in economic well-being, healthier lifestyles, lower stress, and social support.

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