Is NMO the cause of my chronic itch?

A columnist wonders if there's a link between her spinal lesions and chronic itch

Jennifer van Amerom avatar

by Jennifer van Amerom |

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It’s the middle of the night. My body has decided it is no longer comfortable. I gingerly move my limbs, hoping to find a new position to satisfy my aches and pains.

Suddenly, a spot on the top of my head is itchy, so I scratch it. Then another spot itches just below it, so I scratch that, too. Within seconds, I am overcome with the urge to scratch my entire head.

Why do we itch?

A few years ago, researchers set out to better understand what causes itching in the body. In an article published by the University of Oxford, Harriet Dempsey-Jones explained what researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Harvard Medical School, and University of California, San Diego had found. The results of their study were published in the journal Science in 2015.

Dempsey-Jones wrote that there are a “specialized group of cells, a subpopulation of ‘inhibitory spinal interneurons,’ which exist in the spine and act as a gateway between the skin and the brain. These inhibitory cells work to either allow an itch sensation to travel up to the brain or stop it in its path by inhibiting the message.” This is how we can tell the difference between an insect landing on our arm that needs to be scratched, or a shirt we’ve chosen to wear for the day that doesn’t.

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Neuropathic itch

The spinal cord is crucial to the body’s functioning, as it transports nerve signals between the body and the brain. Damage to the spinal cord can result in any number of challenges. This wasn’t something that was explained to me when I was diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica (NMO) and my specialists identified lesions on my spine.

Harvard Medical School (HMS) published an article in 2011 that shares insights into the neuropathic itch. As Anne Louise Oaklander, an associate professor of neurology at HMS noted, “Neuropathic itch is ultimately caused by inappropriate firing of itch neurons in the central nervous system. People with chronic itch often feel as if insects are crawling all over them.”

The article adds that neuropathic itch “appears in many of the same conditions that can cause chronic neuropathic pain.” As an NMO patient, this caught my eye.

Is there a link?

No doctor has suggested to me that neuropathic itching might be a symptom I’d encounter with NMO. It’s difficult to determine if I’m dealing with neuropathic itching or something else, particularly since I’m dealing with other issues as well. I suffer from eczema, which flares in the winter months as my skin dries from a lack of humidity in the air.

Other patients might also struggle to identify neuropathic itching if they are treating issues occurring on the surface of the skin, such as rashes, allergic reactions, or symptoms from other diseases.

Finding relief

Much to my disappointment, I haven’t discovered a way to relieve my chronic itching, especially in the middle of the night when I’m suffering the most. I always have a bottle of topical cream steroids for my eczema, which I sometimes apply to the area of my body that is causing me to wildly scratch.

While I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing I can do about the NMO lesions and the weird and seemingly random symptoms they cause, I am still attempting to take back control of my body. With mind over matter, I find a quiet spot and tell my body that what we’re experiencing isn’t real or necessary.

Are you an NMO patient who experiences chronic itch? Please share in the comments below if you’d like to join the conversation.

Note: Neuromyelitis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Neuromyelitis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD).


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