My Seven Years of Itching
For several years in my twenties, the main thing I did was itch. And scratch.
The “itch cycle,” they call it. Irritants cross the skin barrier, causing the sensitization of immune cells. When you scratch, your nails damage the surface barrier of the skin, allowing more allergens to enter. And thus more itching. And scratching. And itching again. This is why it’s a cycle.
As an affliction, itching seems so trivial. A minor irritation to the skin. It isn’t a broken leg or cancer. Those are ailments you can deploy surgeons and research toward. No one calls 911 over an itchy scalp. Itching is just… well, it’s just itching.
My itching comes from sensitive skin. That and minor allergies to dust, cats, horses, pollen. Not even unusual or fancy allergens — just plain old common hay fever. I don’t carry an EpiPen or a card to alert medical personnel. I just become a bit red and uncomfortable after prolonged exposure to dusty rooms.
Gradually, through my twenties, the itching grew worse. I would awake in the morning to find I had scratched claw marks across the crooks of my arms as if I’d been battling Wolverine in the night. My doctor told me it was “atopic eczema” and to use plenty of moisturizer as a boundary protector. My bathroom filled with white pots and tubes, tinctures, and ointments. A pump-action bottle of moisturizer lived beside my bed. It was the last thing I touched before I went to sleep and the first thing I touched when I woke up.
Still, my itching became incessant. “You’re shaking the bed,” my long-suffering girlfriend said in the middle of the night as I clawed at my arms. “Try not to scratch. It makes it worse.”
This advice, while correct, is as useless as telling a drowning man to try not inhaling water. Itching is irresistible. The itch builds, slowly, relentlessly, until you have no choice but to scratch. Just a little bit, I think to myself. Just a couple of strokes to take the edge off. I am like an alcoholic eyeing a bottle of whiskey. There is a momentary break before the itch returns as strong as ever. I have read that the itch-scratch reflex works at a deeper brain level than the reflex to pull your hand away from flames. We literally cannot stop ourselves scratching itches. Itching is minor but overwhelming.
One of the strange things about itching is that it is partly psychological. Like yawning, it can be contagious. Thinking of it makes it more pressing. While reading this, you may have become more aware of your skin. Of creeping prickles on your arms, neck, and scalp. You may find yourself fidgeting, rubbing idly at your arms and head.
Doctors aren’t sure what itching even is. Is it an irritation? A minor pain? A tickle? Or all in the head? Generally, we still use German physician Samuel Hafenreffer’s definition from 1660: “an unpleasant sensation that provokes the desire to scratch.” Like the wind, we can only see an itch by its effect. To detect itching, follow the scratching.
I was haunted by an article in the New Yorker from 2008 about a woman whose uncontrollable chronic itching led her to scratch all the way through her scalp and into her brain. Like something from a nursery rhyme: There was an old woman who scratched so much/her hand went into her brain and such. It sounds like a warning: If you keep scratching, you’ll scratch into your brain.
My itching had ebbs and flows. There were days when it was gone and others where it was incessant. Baths calmed the itch, but only temporarily. They also washed away the protective skin oils. Like scratching, they relieved the itch, but they didn’t help it.
We live in our bodies full time, so I got used to the signals. I could tell in advance when the itch was about to get worse. I pictured it as an orc-like horde just over the crest of the hill, announcing its arrival in the distance with a thunderous roar. I could tell it’s there and would soon be upon me.
The creams I applied to my skin made it alternately greasy and gritty. Sometimes I looked at my arms and found them shiny from the way my skin had reacted. Each cream did something different. Some made it hard and calloused; some turned it smooth like plastic. If I rubbed my hand down my arm, a slew of dead skin dust would puff up. Bits of me. I swept a molehill of skin flakes from under the bed. Some of the creams worked for a bit and then lost their effectiveness. It was as if either my skin or the itch had adapted to them. Like the Borg. The itch had an agency of its own.
When it got bad, I went to the doctor. In his notes, I saw he had written “skin lichenification.” My skin was turning thick and leathery, like tree lichen, from so much scratching. Itching is all-encompassing. It affects your sleep. There is no escaping. My doctor, a kindly Greek man with a gentle voice, nodded at my descriptions and prescribed steroids. When I rubbed them on, I almost cried. The clear gelatinous ooze calmed the itch. Prolonged use, though, thins the skin. Again, it relieves but does not help.
Hydrocortisone. Betamethasone. Betnovate. To have a medical condition is to memorize drug brand names. There’s an old joke that Americans learn geography from international wars. Similarly, we learn pharmacy through medical afflictions.
Atopic eczema is most common in children, the internet told me, although it can occur at any age. It is long-lasting, chronic, and tends to flare up periodically. There is no known cure. “These things go in seven-year cycles,” my mum told me. It was another old wive’s tale, but I did have eczema as a child. It went away, but the seven-year itch returned.
Such conditions are the breeding ground for alternative remedies. Although I am of a scientific, evidence-based mindset, I have tried these too. I attempted lotions and diets promising to have an impact, and on one occasion, I used a tub of fine green seaweed powder in my bath. The powder didn’t help; it just stained my towels green and made the bathroom smell of stale beaches.
My girlfriend’s mother suggested a consultant who specialized in skin conditions. I booked an appointment, but in the waiting room, as I glanced through the conditions he “specialized” in, I started to lose hope: ADHD, asthma, bladder infections, cold sores, insomnia, lupus, memory decline. It was too long a list to “specialize” in, a list of conditions that leave people desperate to try anything.
In his consulting room, the consultant described his process, known as Neurolink. My skin condition, he explained, was because my brain was sending the wrong signals to my body. He asked me to stretch out my arm horizontally, and then he pushed it down to my side with his hand. Next, he touched my head, got me to hold out my arm again, and pressed. This time my arm stayed up. It seemed clear to me he wasn’t pressing as hard. “Oh no,” he said. “It just feels that way because I’ve reprogrammed your brain’s signals.”
He went to do the other side, and this time, when he attempted to push down, I tightened my muscles. “Ah,” he said, “you’re fighting against me now.”
I considered making more of a fuss, but he was a friend of my girlfriend’s family. The arm pushing felt ostentatious, less like a medical procedure and more like that childhood trick where someone presses on your arms, and when they release, your arms rise up unbidden. It all felt aimed at trying to demonstrate an effect. Doctors don’t spend half the consultation finding oblique ways to convince you that antibiotics work.
But there I was, paying $85 for a white-haired man to press down on my arms with an expression of exaggerated strain. I mentally filed the experience away as theater. Years later, I picked up Louis Theroux’s The Call of the Weird and read an eerily similar description:
He ushered me behind his desk and, as I stuck my arm out, pushed down on it with two fingers. My arm held firm. Then he handed me a small packet of artificial sweetener to hold against my chest. He pushed again, and this time, my arm went down easily. Was he pushing harder? It was hard to tell. But Dan had his own explanation. “That sweetener is creating chaos in your energetic field!” he said. “It’s poison!” As the final part of the demonstration, he had me hold the sweetener and a medallion. My arm held firm again as Dan pantomimed a great strain of exertion (actually making groaning noises).
This arm-pushing trick, common among alternative medicines, is known as “applied kinesiology” and has no actual scientific evidence supporting its claims. As occupational therapy student Hanna Hites at Ohio State University wrote, “The fact that so many medical organizations have made statements rejecting its use should be enough for people to realize that its effectiveness is just an extraordinary belief.” But, of course, that’s not how it works. People believe out of hope. Alternative medicine can be seen as capitalism’s final attempt to squeeze the last few pennies out of you before you keel over.
Neurolink is hard to find online — mainly, because Elon Musk founded an unrelated company Neuralink. But if you override Google’s autocorrection, you can find it. “Neurolink is a little-known form of medical woo,” Rationalwiki says.
I also tried a private doctor. The waiting room was bigger, the magazines were more expensive, and the consultation started on time, lasting an hour rather than the standard 10 minutes. The doctor prescribed another set of medicines, some of which are not approved for use by the NHS (the National Health Service, which is the publicly funded health care system in the United Kingdom), and all of which I had to pay full cost for. By opting out of the NHS, I was opting out of subsidized drugs.
Later, when I returned to NHS care, my general practitioner rolled his eyes at the private doctor’s prescription. “Yeah,” he said, “I know this one.” The cream was not approved for NHS use because it doesn’t work. Or, more precisely, it has not been proven to work. The careful language of science hides the fact that some private doctors, like some alternative therapy practitioners, prey on the hopes of those at their most desperate. They promise a new treatment that medical science has overlooked. “It might work,” people say, suggesting something they read about online. “It’s worth a shot.” This is how they get you.
The $50 non-NHS-approved cream came in a small white tube with MHRA certification and a patient information leaflet, but it might as well have been someone pressing down on my arms.
And then, after years of suffering, suddenly, unexpectedly, out of nowhere, my itching was gone.
I didn’t notice the change at first, because my itch had always come in waves. It was always better in the summer, but worse in the winter — when the outside bitterness chaps my skin and the indoor heating dries it out. In the summer, it has always been hard to remember how bad the itch could get. Our minds try to forget discomfort. But that particular winter, the itch didn’t return. I was cautious at first and sometimes found myself gently rubbing at my skin, almost out of habit. But the next year, it was still gone.
My seven-year cycle, apparently, was over.
There was no silver bullet. No magical ointment. No miraculous cure that I found after combing obscure websites. It was a combination of cautious use of creams to break the itch-scratch cycle and careful maintenance. I never found out what caused the itch to come or what led it to leave. I just gradually became aware it had gone. Perhaps it went away on its own. I’m reminded of Voltaire’s observation: “Medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.”
I am disappointed in this anticlimax. In the New Yorker article, Atul Gawande got to the bottom of why the woman is scratching her head so madly (a rare problem with her nerves) and found a cure (a mirror box that “provides the brain with new visual input” that sounds eerily similar to the idea of “reprogramming” my brain). I am wary of claims that pop up at exactly the moment they’re needed. Of discoveries that happen in time for a dramatic conclusion. Life doesn’t have a narrative arc.
Later I looked up “mirror therapy.” A review of 62 studies concluded that in some cases, the therapy results in “moderate improvement […] mainly in people with a complex regional pain syndrome,” but there is “uncertain evidence quality.”
I am one of the lucky ones. My itching, which was never so bad that I scratched myself to the hospital, went away on its own. The explanation that matched reality closest was my mum’s: Your body goes in seven-year cycles. Of course, this could mean that it’ll be back one day.
If the itch does return I have, at least, amassed a list of things not to try again. But for now, I sit here. And, despite the occasional scratch that comes from writing about itching, I do not itch, and I do not scratch.