You’re not imagining things: scratching an itch really does make it worse, according to an October 2014 study in the journal Neuron.
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that scratching can relieve an itch by creating minor pain. And that’s where things go haywire: “The problem is that when the brain gets those pain signals, it responds by producing the neurotransmitter serotonin to help control that pain,” explained senior investigator Zhou-Feng Chen, Ph.D., director of Washington University’s Center for the Study of Itch (how great is that title?) in a press release. “But as serotonin spreads from the brain into the spinal cord, we found the chemical can ‘jump the tracks,’ moving from pain-sensing neurons to nerve cells that influence itch intensity.”
In other words, scratching the itch creates a moment of sweet relief, but the pain that scratching causes and the subsequent release of serotonin actually intensifies the itch sensation. Although the study was done on mice, the same itch-scratch cycle is believed to occur in humans.
Blocking serotonin isn’t an option since it helps the body control pain naturally. Serotonin also plays a role in several areas of the body, including the regulation of appetite, sleep and mood. Instead, Chen noted that it may be possible to obstruct communication between serotonin and nerve cells in the spinal cord that specifically transmit the itch sensation.
While scientists suss out how to better control this frustrating itch-pain cycle, try these four tips to help soothe an itchy skin situation. Oh, and heed your mom’s advice — don’t scratch that itch.