Kristen Sparrow • March 14, 2020
Purpose: Psychological stress and ensuing modulation of the immune and nervous systems can have a significant impact on itch. Stress can exacerbate itch and vice versa, resulting in a vicious cycle that can greatly impair a patient’s quality of life. This review summarizes the association between stress and itch, elucidates the mechanism by which these two phenomena influence one another, and explores treatment modalities that aim to reduce stress-induced itch.
Methods: A complete search of the PubMed and Google Scholar databases was completed and literature pertinent to this review was compiled.
Findings: Both acute and chronic stress can significantly affect itch in healthy individuals and in those diagnosed with itchy skin diseases as well as systemic diseases, thus resulting in a vicious cycle in which stress exacerbates itch and vice versa. The mechanisms by which stress induces or aggravates itch include both central and peripheral activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and sympathetic nervous system. Activation of these systems, in turn, affects the mast cells, keratinocytes, and nerves that secrete neuropeptides, such as substance P, nerve growth factor, acetylcholine, histamine, and itchy cytokines. A dysfunctional parasympathetic response is thought to be involved in the chronic stress/itch response. Brain structures associated with emotion, such as the limbic system and periaqueductal gray, which work on the descending facilitation of itch, play a significant role in stress-induced itch.
Implications: As specific brain structures are associated with stress, drug treatments targeting these areas (ie, γ-aminobutyric acid-ergic drugs, serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) may help to modulate itch. Stress can also be combatted using nonpharmacologic treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapies and stress-relieving holistic approaches (eg, yoga, acupuncture).
Keywords: HPA axis; acute; chronic; itch; parasympathetic; stress.