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Why does scratching an itch feel pleasurable?

By  ,  Onlymyhealth editorial team
Jun 20, 2015
Quick Bites

  • Communication process between skin and brain is complex.
  • First hint about the connection was received by long-distance itching.
  • Scratching is much more than just a reaction.
  • Scratching activates pleasure areas of the brain.

Itch and scratch are inseparable and there is nothing that can contradict that fact. The skin may appear like a messenger that alerts the brain when it’s getting too hot or too cold, but this usual exchange of messages between the skin and the brain is much more complex than it seems.

What makes itching pleasurable

Does it ever mess with your head knowing that we humans can scratch a rash until it begins to ooze out blood, but a scrape on the knee or elbow can cause unbearable pain?

If the answer is a yes, findings of a research will solve the mystery for you.

The research

A study published in the journal of Investigative Dermatology revealed what happens in our head when we just cannot resist scratching. Dr. Gil Yosipovitch, lead author of the study and a dermatologist at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, N.C. said, "They can't be divorced, itch and scratch.  Almost all two and four-legged animals scratch and itch — supposedly, even fish scratch themselves."

It took long for the scientists to realize that scratching was much more than just a natural reaction. The first hint for lead author Yosipovitch was derived from long-distance scratching, which gave relief even if you scratched far from the point of bite or rash. Yosipovitch says, "It's not just a local reaction. It's so important to understand there is an interaction between the skin and the brain".

What makes itching pleasurable

To study the interaction, 13 healthy people were made to go under MRI scan machines after which the researchers began to scratch the volunteers on their legs in 30-second intervals.

It was noted that simple scratching—not even a result of an induced itch—had a compulsive effect on the brain.
The researchers found that scratching activated areas of the brain that were associated with memory and pleasure and suppressed those areas that were linked with sensation of pain and emotions.

According to Yosipovitch, "It puts in that message to continue it. That's why it's so repetitive. It's associated with a reward, so the more you do it, the more it feels better".

Image source: Getty Images

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  • Tamana22 Jun 2015

    Intriguing! Really interesting.

  • Raman20 Jun 2015

    That was really surprising. Never though about that.