My back itches...
January 21, 2015 11:39 AM   Subscribe

My back itches, and it has been going on for years, about fifteen years, and it's driving me nuts!

It used to be just my back, and occasionally my upper chest, just above my breasts. It's mostly my upper back between my shoulder blades, but sometimes the lower back. As I said, this has been going on for a while. I'm 48, my kids are grown and out of the house, but I can remember asking them when they were teenagers to scratch my back whenever it got horrible.

It's not a constant itch, but it comes and goes. I've mentioned it to doctors... they gave me creams. They didn't help.

There are no bumps, no rashes, no redness, no bites. My skin is not dry. It just itches.

I've tried the following several times (remember... this has been going on for a long time): Changing soaps, changing shampoos, changing laundry detergents. I've tried changing the types of materials I wear. I've tried changing my diet... Yes, I've gone gluten free and dairy free. No, it didn't help. I've tried all kinds of salves. Yes, I've tried oatmeal baths. Since I have a chronic sinus condition, I've taken all kinds of antihistamines and corticosteroids and my back itched merrily along even while on those medications. Since I have chronic pain issues, I've taken anti-inflammatory meds, and it still itched. Honestly, I don't think there's anything I haven't tried at this point.

I know this isn't a life-threatening situation, which is why my doctors aren't really concerned about it, I have so much else on my plate. But it's getting worse the older I get. Right now, not only does my back itch, but my shoulders and upper arms itch too. Again, there are no rashes, no bumps, no redness... Everything just itches like crazy. It's very distracting.

I guess what I'm asking is, does anyone know why my back, and only my back, would be itching? Google keeps telling me it's some kind of dermatitis (allergies) or bug bites. I'm pretty sure it's neither. I figure if I can figure out why my back itches, maybe I can stop it from itching...
posted by patheral to Health & Fitness (39 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My mom had one of these, she called it her itchy spot. I find I'm also starting to get it, and one thing that has helped me has been to pull my hair away from the back of my neck and letting the water rinse my back for a good 30 seconds to a minute.

Do you have longer hair? You might try a pixie cut. This will eliminate if it's somehow irritation from your own hair, and two it'll make it easy to rinse your shoulders/arms/back/etc without residuey hair resting on it.
posted by royalsong at 11:45 AM on January 21, 2015

Did your doctor check your thyroid? Both under and overactive thyroid can cause itching.

Additionally, Scratching an itch begets more itching. So fighting the urge to scratch can help if you can stand it.
posted by cecic at 11:48 AM on January 21, 2015

I assume you've tried nightly application of a strong lotion or bag balm? I always get horrendously itchy when I have dry skin, and it's worse on my back/shoulders for some reason.

A very effective temporary cure is to use a hair dryer on the itchy spots. It will trigger the itching en masse, you'll have a weird itchgasm, and then you'll have exhausted the ability of the nerves to fire for a while and the itching will stop. I've used this successfully with things like poison ivy.
posted by zug at 11:48 AM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have the same thing on my back on my right shoulder blade. I am in my 50s and have had this on and off for at least 20 years. At one point I thought I was allergic to some medication I was taking, but I stopped and it remained.

I have become sort of stoic about it. No doctor, friend or family member has an answer.
posted by 724A at 11:49 AM on January 21, 2015

Best answer: In my mid-20s, I suddenly started getting a weird skin rash, in that the skin had no visible markings like yours. It would itch and I would scratch it and all of a sudden there would be four swollen, red, hot welt marks where my four fingers had been. If people had seen my arms and legs naked, they'd think I was a domestic violence victim. My doctor said it was a form of idiopathic urticaria and that it could be an autoimmune reaction. It went away after 5 or 6 years. I think one's allergies get really wonky (both good and bad) as one ages, and it sounds like what you have just has no known remedy.

On preview, what 724A said.
posted by Melismata at 11:54 AM on January 21, 2015

When you say you've seen doctors, have you been to a dermatologist? I'd try to find the best derm in your area and make it clear that this is affect your quality of life.
posted by radioamy at 12:05 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Long shot, but maybe a neurologist could help? Maybe it's a nerve thing?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 12:06 PM on January 21, 2015

Came in to suggest dry skin. If you live in a dry climate or have harsh winters, dry skin can make it itch insanely, even if your skin doesn't look dry & cracking. This can also happen if you like to take very hot baths or showers, as the heat boils out the oils in your skin, leaving it dry & itchy. Slather yourself with creams (I like Aveeno) for a few days & see how it goes.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:11 PM on January 21, 2015

Best answer: I have the same thing as 724A, in the same place, and I'm the same age. I've only had the itchy spot for about 10 years, though. I keep a back scratcher in the bathroom at home, and try very hard, mostly sucessfully, to not rub up against sharp corners in public like I'm a bear with fleas. It is a Thing, but doesn't get larger, smaller, or change at all, so it is Just A Thing.
posted by angiep at 12:16 PM on January 21, 2015

rabbitrabbit's comment also reminded me of another thing: doctors can be complete idiots. When I got head lice, I went to three, count 'em, three doctors (two dermatologists, one general) to find out why my head was on fire all the time. None of them found the hundreds of bugs on my head. After the third doctor, I was ready to make an appointment with a neurologist when some bugs fell onto my keyboard. So yes, that might be a route to take.
posted by Melismata at 12:16 PM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have a theory that when my upper back itches, it has something to do with my showering. Because, when I stand in the shower, about 90% of the time, my back is turned towards the shower head, and my upper back is getting the brunt of the water flung against it. Is my back not rinsed enough from the shampoo? (I like what royalsong was saying about moving the hair to the side & rinsing better.) Does my upper back not like the stimulation of the shower head? Is the water too hot? Does my upper back skin not like being wet and hot, and the skin itches afterwards because it is doing a bit of healing? I am not sure of any of this, but it doesn't usually bother me enough to figure it out, but it's the only thing I can figure out that is consistently different from other areas of skin - it's the most exposed to the assault of the shower head.
posted by molasses at 12:18 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another theory: yeast? Have you tried treating with yeast infection / athlete's foot medicine?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 12:23 PM on January 21, 2015

Best answer: I have something similar, but limited to my left center upper back. Based on the fact that it appeared around the same time I started having a pinched nerve in my upper back, I google-diagnosed myself with notalgia paresthetica. Hey, it's itching right now! Actually it basically never stops itching. For me, it will itch more if I incline my head for a while, presumably because I'm further impinging on the nerve.
posted by acanthous at 12:25 PM on January 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Instead of scratching it you can slap it with a flyswatter, aka the usual itchy tattoo aftercare. The sting cures the itch better than scratching. No idea about potential causes, alas.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:25 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To answer a few questions... I've changed shampoos and soaps many MANY times over the years, so I don't think it's my hair, and I do let the water rinse my back. I even have a soft-bristled back brush to make sure all of the shampoo gets off my back.

I have been recently diagnosed with hypothyroidism, but before that, my thyroid was "within the normal range" whenever it was checked. My back itched before the diagnosis, and after the diagnosis. I haven't been to a dermatologist, though I've been to an allergist and rheumatologist for different things and have mentioned the itchy back (along with other things).

I've tried all kinds of lotions and salves for "dry, itchy skin" not a one of them offered anything but very brief relief. Like... "Oh, that feels nic... damn it! It itches again."

I've lived in all kinds of climates from the deserts of New Mexico to the high humidity of Mississippi. My back itched in all of them.

I've changed homes, beds, and clothing over the years at one point completely starting over with nothing but the clothes on my back (for different reasons)... And I've had friends check me over the years for bugs (just in case). No bugs have ever been found.
posted by patheral at 12:25 PM on January 21, 2015

Have you changed your bra? Metal allergy that is triggered by the clasps? I've had this, and it persists for days after I stop wearing the offending bra. The two locations you mention -- between shoulder blades and upper chest -- would go along with back and front closure bras. Maybe wear a sports bra for a week or two and see if that helps.

Many sympathies. I have random itching on my arms and legs that drives me absolutely mad and nothing has helped, but the specific spots you mention were ones that had an answer in my case.
posted by xeney at 12:38 PM on January 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've tried all kinds of lotions and salves for "dry, itchy skin" not a one of them offered anything but very brief relief. Like... "Oh, that feels nic... damn it! It itches again."

Just to be somewhat pedantically clear, did you try them as in spend a long period of time where you were using them to moisturize daily?

It could still be your hair if it's "mechanical". Changing shampoos won't necessarily do anything about dry, scratchy hair, especially if you don't moisturize, and even if you keep it up during the day, you could be spending the whole night scratching it up.

Those are the only things that I can think of that don't involve some kind of nerve involvement, which could be a zillion different things.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 12:39 PM on January 21, 2015

Seconding Zug's suggestion of application of heat. But given the location of the itching, and hot air's drying action, I would actually try just really hot showers when it gets bad. I have an autoimmune condition that manifests as itching, and sometimes immersing the itchy portion of me in piping hot water will produce zug's "itchgasm" and result in several hours of blissful relief.

Also nthing dermatologist. My autoimmune condition was diagnosed by a dermatologist, even though it is more typically noted and treated by rheumatologists. In fact, the rheumatologist basically turned me away saying I had nothing wrong with me that he could treat. This was because I hit the jackpot twice - I have a rare "skin-only" version of a rare autoimmune degenerative muscle condition (dermatomyositis).
posted by kythuen at 12:50 PM on January 21, 2015

Oh, and statins! Are you on any? Because statins can cause insane itching, too. I was temporarily put on one a few years back during my diagnostic period (when they were basically trying everything), and itched so much I thought I'd die. Turns out this is pretty common.
posted by kythuen at 12:51 PM on January 21, 2015

Have you tried Cerave body lot on? It's gets into your skin and is totally different from other skin lotions. It made me stop itching in the winter when I thought nothing would.

Other than it sounds like a nerve issue. I had a spider bite once that itched for years and years until the venom / nerves finally sorted themselves out. I wonder if B12 or prescription drugs for nerve pain would help you. Or seeing a neurologist or spinal specialist.
posted by fshgrl at 12:56 PM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I post this as a fellow itch-sufferer who also went through a million creams, doctors, detergents etc. - so I feel your itch and frustration here.

Things that worked for me:
Fluocinonide cream 0.05% coupled with Allegra
Cerave cream (not lotion, apparently there is a difference)

Something that was suggested to me early on (which was not the problem in the end) was to have my liver checked as apparently bile can get lose and causes itchy skin. See more here.
posted by Toddles at 1:36 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My back has itched (especially near by right shoulder blade) for a long time. For at least a decade or longer. Not every day, but it's a regular problem. I mentioned it to the PA at the dermatologist office and she said, "there are nerve tracts in that area that can cause itching". I blame it on nerve tracts.
posted by Fairchild at 1:38 PM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was thinking along the same lines as St. Peepsburg, the medical term for it is xerosis (the medical term for itching is 'pruritus'). Is the skin scaly appearing or dry appearing? Do you use a humidifier at home?

I nth the recommendation to see a dermatologist.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:39 PM on January 21, 2015

Maybe try a bra that fastens in the front? It could be that the skin is irritated due to being exposed to metal (?) fastener on your bra–?
posted by marimeko at 1:40 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: oh and I just want to point out for your sanity/anxiety reduction purposes that the duration of symptoms and the specific localization of the itch speaks against a systemic cause like liver problems or cancer, although those are unusual causes of itching.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:40 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I thought it might be my bra because I do have a metal allergy (which is why I only buy bras with covered fastenings), so I went full-on sports bras for months and months. Still itched like crazy. I thought I might be allergic to the elastic, but I wear stretchy things elsewhere on my body and they don't itch at all.

As for my hair, I wear it down, but there's generally two layers of clothing between me and where it itches -- shirt and bra back -- three layers if I'm wearing a coat or sweater. And I always wear a nightshirt or nightgown to bed and braid my hair at night. I don't know how it could be my hair.

My skin is not dry. I promise you.

Looking at acanthous's link. I think it might be that as I do have back problems. I'll ask my doctor next time I see her (next week).
posted by patheral at 1:41 PM on January 21, 2015

Two more suggestions:

1. a friend of mine was having itchy skin (all over) and it turned out he was having a severe autoimmune response

2. What your describing sounds a bit like what nursing and pregnant women get - not that you are either, but could this be hormonal? May seem out of left field, but if that's a possibility, maybe get hormones checked or go on birth control to see if it helps.
posted by Toddles at 1:42 PM on January 21, 2015

If you have access to specialists, you will find more sympathetic ears than with a general physician. I would certainly encourage you to see an allergist and start with an allergy test / skin prick test to rule out as much as possible on that front (allergens can be from very unexpected sources, or combinations of things, and it would be an important step to include in your medical history). Again, even if this has nothing to do with allergy, it's important to know this before seeing other specialists. For instance, seeing a rheumatologist afteran allergist tells you that you have no obvious allergies but that you have elevated immuno/autoimmune markers in your circulation would be a sensible progression.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:51 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Itch is really complicated and poorly understood by medical research; it's just now beginning to come into its own as an area of specific focus. NYTimes article from last year. No wonder you're frustrated!
posted by desuetude at 4:14 PM on January 21, 2015

Totally OTC suggestion but sometimes when I'm itchy if I use an alpha hydroxy lotion - it helps get rid of the dead skin that is causing the itch. Just keeping moisturized doesn't do the trick - I need the alpha hydroxy to really exfoliate.
posted by rdnnyc at 6:18 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have not yet found a permanent solution to my itchy back, but the best back scratcher I have found is a cheap, wooden back brush with boar bristles. Not used in the shower... I use it dry whenever my back feels particularly itchy. Gives a lovely, deeply satisfying scratch. I keep one by my computer and one beside the bed.

My favorite back brush is this one. I like it better than the kind with the detachable head, as the head tends to detach while you are using it.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:45 PM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Someone I use to talk to online thought he had itchy skin from uremia but it ended up being a fungal infection. I think the doctor had to do a skin culture to figure out what it was. It might be worth asking your doctor about to at least rule it out.
posted by stray thoughts at 8:50 PM on January 21, 2015

TOTALLY feel your pain. I went to all kinds of doctors for itching/pain/itching. FINALLY an acupuncturist told me to get sublingual B12, and REALLY pump it up. I mean like 6 sub lingual pills every hour until they dissolve. It calms the nerve endings. After two straight days of doing that during all waking hours it fizzled, then stopped. Every so often it will flare, I go buy fresh B12 sub linguals, and it's gone. Hope it helps you too.
posted by msleann at 9:56 PM on January 21, 2015

Tea tree oil.

For some reason my diabetes has made me more prone to fungal infections, whether it's between the toes or someplace ... else. I found the best results with clotrimazole creams, but it was still a coming and going and coming back again kind of thing. Then I tried the tea tree oil based Funga-Soap and, wow, it was even more effective than the medicated cream supposedly recommended for eradicating the infection.

The thing is, I specifically had a weird, recurring itchy area on the back of my scalp at my hairline. It never appeared red or rashy but it would itch like crazy sometimes. The clotrimazole helped, but the tea tree oil stuff made it go away, more or less permanently. You don't even need that much of the stuff; I probably apply a dime or nickel-sized droplet and it foams up like a nice body wash should, so it's very efficient and a small bottle lasts ages. The one warning is that if you have skin that's raw from scratching, or say a small cut, this will burn like the flames of hell. But only in that case; it's otherwise just a bit tingly at most.

Since you have this all over your body you might look into a tea tree oil bath oil formulation. Either way it's inexpensive enough to be worth a shot.
posted by dhartung at 11:21 PM on January 21, 2015

This New Yorker article may not help resolve the itch, but it's fascinating. You could try to get in touch with the author, Atul Gawande. You might get some respite from the itch with a topical anesthetic, but that's between you and your health care professional.
posted by theora55 at 11:26 PM on January 21, 2015

I had a horrible itchy rashy problem on my right hand for years. Docs diagnosed as eczema but their creams never worked. What did work was completely eliminating detergent for dish and hand/body/hair washing and using soap instead. Don't know why detergent was causing problems only in that one spot when I was using it all over, but I am positive of the causal relationship. Like you I had tried a ton of different products, but almost everything on the market is some form of detergent, so they were all essentially the same. Search out actual SOAP like Dr Bronner's. More info:
posted by libraryhead at 5:28 AM on January 22, 2015

The back of my neck itched for about a year, despite seven different prescription creams my dermatologist gave me. I finally figured out the reason for the itching: a prescription acne cream that I was using on my face. It never touched the back of my neck, but when I forgot to use it one night, the itching went away. I had also used it for years earlier without any itching. Could it be a cream you're using on a different part of your body?
posted by capsizing at 5:41 AM on January 22, 2015

I've found that my skin is really itchy above tight muscles. Is that perhaps a place in your body where you hold tension?
posted by lab.beetle at 8:56 AM on January 22, 2015

I have it too, as does my mom. Why is it ALWAYS in an area you can't reach???? At any rate, I haven't been back to my doc yet, but my mom got the "spots" zapped and her itching had stopped.

I don't know any more about it than that, but I will ask my dermatologist when I see him.
posted by ezust at 1:18 PM on January 22, 2015

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