Itchy Arm

Several years ago, I started having what I have always called “itchy arm.”  My arms, sometimes one, sometimes both, just start to itch.  It occurs mostly at night, and times like right now when I’m thinking about it.  When it’s really bad, it itches all day long.

In my case, the symptoms tend to go away in the fall and in those early years, I thought it was gone until it would return the following summer. Some years are worse than others.

For a couple of years, maybe longer, I really suffered from it. I couldn’t sleep. I would give up and just get up, sometimes not going to bed all night because my arms itched. I would scratch them until they bled, even though scratching makes it much worse, not better.

The itching can be really intense. It feels like something crawling under the skin.

But then one day, I just Googled “itchy arm” and was amazed.

It’s an actual, real, neurological condition called brachioradial pruritis. This made me laugh. Brachioradial pruritis is simply doctor-speak for “itchy arm.” What this says is that they have no idea what causes it, but needed to give it a name, so they just Latinized the descriptive term.

There are two theories about what causes it.  It’s not a skin condition. Lotions do not help even slightly.  I know because I’ve tried all of them. Dermatologists love lotions and if you go to one, he will prescribe a tube of some expensive shit, but it won’t help.

It’s most definitely a neurological condition.

One school of thought is that it’s due to damage from the sun to the nerve endings.  There is no question, in my experience, that exposure to the sun makes it much, much worse.  It’s there when I am out and about in the summertime, and gone in winter. I never had it in Alaska at all.

The other theory is that it’s due to neurological damage to the cervical spine.  The argument is that it occurs only on the arms (and that portion of the arm that is generally exposed to the sun, by the way), and not on the legs. Even if I get a sunburn on my legs, I don’t get it there.

There doesn’t seem to be any dire condition associated with it.  It’s basically just a pain in the ass.

But the internet, bless the internet, gave me a way to stop the itching, and that is with an ice pack.  I own about three of them. I’ve worn out one.  In the summertime, I typically fill an ice pack at bedtime whether I’m having itching or not and keep it handy, because sometimes the itching will wake me up in the middle of the night. I just put the icepack on my arm until it’s very cold and pretty much numb.  The itching stops like magic and usually I can go back to sleep.

Doctors actually call this the “ice pack sign” and it’s apparently a definitive tool in diagnosing the condition. If ice makes the itching go away, you’ve got it.

And of course, now I know that come October, itchy arm will go away.

Here’s a closeup photo I just took a few minutes ago of my right forearm. See the “bug bites”?  They aren’t.  Those are places where I scratched the skin off in my sleep (I try not to do it when I’m aware of it because it does no good and makes the itching sensation worse, not better, although sometimes it’s very hard not to scratch even when I know better). Right now, I have it in my right arm and have had almost none on the left this summer, but that’s subject to change at any moment.

Anyway, it’s weird.

I’ve long ago figured out that most other treatment is useless. Some websites, ones that should know better, recommend silly shit like acupuncture (might as well pray for all the good that will do), or sledge-hammer cures like antidepressants (not a chance am I going to take some drug when ice fixes it nicely). I was reading an online forum once discussing this and people there recounted tales of having spent thousands of dollars going from doctor to doctor trying to get treatment.

I suppose there are folks who have it much worse than I do and find that they cannot function during the daytime because of it, but so far I am not one of them.

It’s a nuisance, but something I’ve learned to cope with just by making sure the ice trays stay full.

Now you are expecting me to segue into some other broad topic and then you’ll know why I brought this up.  Not this time. I just brought it up because I can find very little about this in the popular literature. Most discussion is technical, medical, and full of big words, intended for medical professionals.  This, I hope, is more accessible and thus more practical.


26 thoughts on “Itchy Arm”

  1. I watched a show called diagnosis me, the man had intense itching and neurologist tested, dermatology etc. come to find out it was due to the mercury in his fillings. He had them replaced and he was cured.


  2. This is crazy because I just took my son to the doctor for this same thing and they told me it was bug bites. Except no one else in my household is getting bitten by anything, and he “breaks out” every summer. I am going to be researching this now. I have never heard of it. Once again, thanks Sally! You are a well of information!


  3. He had them replaced and he was cured.

    This is not due to fillings. 🙂 Honestly, I have a positive ice-pack sign.


  4. Ice is a beautiful thing – except in my case – I develop hives from it. I didn’t find out about this nifty condition until I had knee surgery. And lots of cold therapy. For a month I had an ice machine hooked up to my knee. It was joyous because I needed less pain meds but horrific after three weeks because I had horrible hives. It looked like I had leprosy – or at least that is what my mom said. Lol. Congrats on finding a remedy and not turning to pharmaceuticals!


  5. Here’s a little trick.
    Fill zip lock baggies with half rubbing alcohol and half water and keep it in the freezer.
    I always double bag the baggies incase of leaks.
    This makes a frozen slushy consistency ice pack that can vibe molds to the affected area.
    Also you can make them any size and they are reusable.


  6. Unrelated, but my kid had a nasty case of mono earlier this year (I may find the bloodwork results later so we can all wince in sympathy), that led to strep and finally to a weird rash running down his arms and on his stomach. Turns out that thanks to getting immunized against chicken pox, he did NOT develop shingles. For which we’re grateful. My husband suffered through shingles & his cornea is scarred as a result.

    Which has nothing to do with itchy arm syndrome, but I wanted to put in a plug for immunizations. There are obvious and less-obvious benefits to receiving them.

    What about wrapping your arm in cold cloths, does that help?


  7. What about wrapping your arm in cold cloths, does that help?

    If they were very cold, it would help, but it would also be wet and messy. I want to sleep. An ice pack lets me do that.


  8. Also you can make them any size and they are reusable.

    But they would sweat as the ice melted. The ice pack stays dry. I can put it right in bed with me and nothing gets wet. Eventually, they lose that water tight quality, but when they start to leak, I toss them and get a new one. They’re not expensive, considering that I use a pack every night all summer long for several years before it dies.


  9. I am so glad you wrote about this subject! I’m not alone! I get this too however I get it on any exposed (to the sun) skin but my arms are always first. I am going to try the ice pack treatment next time.

    I have been staying covered the last several summers to avoid the issue because it is horrible and mine happens all day and night. 🙁 I figured out it takes 4 weeks of no exposure to sun to make my itching go away! Not fun.


  10. Never heard of this! Glad you were able to figure out what it was and what offers some relief. You should sew some sort of waterproof sleeves that you can throw ice cubes in, zipper or velcro it closed at the top, and reuse! They probably sell them somewhere, but I’d imagine they’re ridiculously expensive if you could find a similar material and have a go at it DIY style.

    The internet is no good for googling symptoms. When I had my first bout of poison ivy in high school, there wasn’t a huge noticeable rash, but the itching kept me up all night. I was convinced it was Hodgkin’s. No more WebMD for me!


  11. My mother had itchy arms. The doctor told her it was caused by stress so she blamed it entirely on my father. Now I know what it really was. Thank you.


  12. Wow, never heard of that! Glad you were able to find out what it was and what offers you some relief! These are a bit expensive actually, and I don’t know if they’d last all night, but look up Freeze Sleeves. Originally they’re for gymnastics, but I just thought of it and they look less bulky and maybe easier to sleep in?


  13. There is also a liver condition that causes that type of itching. It’s called intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy, and it’s awful. The itch is mostly generalized, but often concentrates on the feet and hands. Ursodial helps some, but delivery is the only “cure.”


  14. Having iopathic Neruopathy in arms and legs finding any kind of relief is important. The sun destroys me, cold weather makes me cringe, I live on Neurotin. I am glad you found something so simple I really am.


  15. We have a few “itchy kids” in our family, but related to asthma/allergies. Night time treatments in our arsenal that might also help you is wearing light weight long sleeved snug fitting cotton PJ tops and light cotton gloves, because even closely cut nails can still open up areas. Preventing any extra stimulus on the skin helps ours, day and night during exacerbation.

    Is your itchiness mapped along a dermatome? Sorry Sally. Hope it calms down soon.


  16. Hope it calms down soon.

    I fully expect to be dealing with it for the rest of my life. That’s okay. It’s manageable.


  17. I am going to try the ice pack treatment next time.

    Ice was like a miracle for me. Not all itchy conditions respond to it, just brachioradial pruritis. It’s like the definitive test.


  18. The internet is no good for googling symptoms.

    Yes, usually it’s a big no-no. I didn’t bother doing that for a couple of years because I knew I’d come up with nothing.

    And I didn’t go to the doctor with it because at the time, I wasn’t insured with Medicare and had that horrible high-deductible policy and no way was I gonna pay out of pocket for a bunch of tests that showed nothing.

    So I just suffered along until I found ice.

    I even took an ice pack along with me on the cruise last year. I was worried about the tropics. Oddly enough, I didn’t have any problem, even though I got sunburned. I don’t know if it was because the exposure wasn’t long enough (a week in the Caribbean) or what. The bulk of the cruise was in the north Atlantic.

    It’s usually July when it hits me and October when it goes away.


  19. On the subject of itching…
    For mosquito bites, my family always used a hot as you can stand it without burning yourself wet hot compress to the bite, or bites. It immediately stops the itching.

    The freezer bags I mention earlier should always be wrapped in a light towel.
    And you’re right they develop condensation after a while. I wouldn’t want to sleep with them all night… ?


  20. I just thought of it and they look less bulky and maybe easier to sleep in?

    They look interesting. The idea is great. However, they last 20 minutes. LOL That would barely get me started. I can fill my ice bag at 11 pm and at 6 am it’s liquid but still very cold.


  21. My husband has some sort of problem with both his legs. He scratches in his sleep. I’ve given him Benadryl and that helped some. He’s been rubbing them with coconut oil and I can see some improvement.
    I think it’s stress related as both of us have been through the ringer this year since I lost my health insurance and 66% of my disability income. ( My problems are gut related and that can be a major PITA literally and figuratively.
    He uses ice when he’s watching TV and that has brought some relief as well, but he’s swearing by coconut oil.


  22. I have a horse who has some sort of weird summer dermatitis. He’s been biopsied more than once and no one knows what the hell it is that causes him to lose hair on his fetlocks and for his skin to thicken. He’s been in during the day, various ointments applied, dry lot, re-seeded, etc. Best thing I’ve found are the Whinny Sox ( I mention this because it may help someone for whom ice doesn’t work (because it’s something entirely different). They’re not cheap BUT the ones I’ve purchased are now on their second year of use and are in good shape. Plus if any other readers are also horse owners who have this problem. They’re also terrific to use as fly wraps to minimize stomping.


  23. I feel for you with “the itch.” My affliction is eczema. It comes and goes, but likes to rear its ugly head in the hot humid summer. During the night is the worst, I have woken in the morning looking like I had a scuffle with Wolverine. I have noticed extreme stress will bring it out of retirement. “The itch” can be maddening, temporary insanity.


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