Breaking the ‘itch-scratch cycle’


Itch is the most frequent symptom in dermatology and can be more disabling and distressing than the condition itself. Although feelings of itch are strongly correlated with the desire to scratch, those suffering from a chronic skin condition know only too well the vicious cycle that exists between itching and scratching, which can lead to secondary infections, scarring and emotional distress and significantly reduce the sufferer’s quality of life. In order to alleviate symptoms we need to break this ‘itch-scratch cycle’ but the mechanisms that trigger itch perceptions and perpetuate this cycle are poorly understood.

The purpose of our research is to understand the psychological mechanisms of how itch sensations are triggered, why some people are more susceptible to these triggers and whether inhibiting itch sensations through a psychological intervention can break the itch-scratch cycle with the goal of finding better treatments for chronic itch.

To achieve these aims we will use experimental paradigms adapted from chronic pain research and our own previous work in order to

  1. Identify the visually-evoked environmental triggers that either evoke itch sensations and/or provoke the scratch response.
  2. Measure attentional bias to these triggers in non-clinical and sub-clinical populations with common skin conditions.
  3. Measure any subsequent change in tactile detection thresholds when viewing these images.
  4. Develop a cost-effective psychological intervention based on attention re-training that biases attention away from itch-evoking environmental triggers to neutral stimuli, decreasing the desire to scratch and breaking the ‘itch-scratch cycle’.