Till a few months ago, I did not know that there exists a medical condition called ‘Phantom Itch or Itching’. But the Florence born Italian poet and political thinker Dante (Dante Alighieri in full. Born 1265 C.E., died 1321 C.E.) seems to have had knowledge of it. In Inferno (Canto 29, Lines 73-85), the first part of his 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy (La divina commedia), he wrote (translation from Italian by James Finn Cotter):
Then I saw these two scratch themselves with nails
Over and over, because of the burning rage
Of the fierce itching which nothing would relieve.
The ‘fierce itching’ referred to in the line “the burning rage of the fierce itching that nothing would relieve” refers, in all probability, to what we now call phantom itching. In the epic, falsifiers were punished with this ailment.
Phantom itches get their name from the fact that they are itches that can not be found since they are non-skin condition problems. The itching sensation is exactly like what we feel when small insects or ants crawl on our skin, and is the result of signals – possibly false – that skin sends to brain in an effort to rub out the irritant. We scratch to remove the itch. The place where the trigger originates in the body may not be the place where you feel the itch. Phantom itches drive one crazy. Instances are known of patients scratching their skulls to brain necessitating brain surgery. In acute cases, the patients (may) commit suicide. Phantom itching is infectious and contagious. It is personal as well as universal.
Mechanism of the itch is not known; but itching is usually triggered by an insect bite, a skin disease, viral or bacterial infection, severe stresses and emotional experiences, psychosis, HIV, a serious condition like cancer. There might be a connection between haemochromatosis and phantom itching. Malfunctioning of nerves can give rise to phantom itch. Showering followed by generous application of body lotion and complete change of clothes ease suffering. Changing to a warmer climate can cure the disease. Acupuncture is known to stop this phantom itch. Chiro also helps. Phantom sensations are reported by a very large number of amputees. The primary reason for this is that the area of the brain that was connected to the part before it was amputated continues to live and feel the amputated part even after it is gone. I have read cases, where after undergoing double mastectomy, the affected persons experience itching under the skin and nothing helps them to be rid of it.
There was the interesting case of a man, who suffered from itching for several months before he was cured through part medications and part natural methods. The man contacted the infection after taking ablutions (ceremonial washings/baths) in the polluted water of a pond as part of the rites conducted in a funeral ceremony. The priest said and he took dips several times, reluctantly though, and the result was itching. The itching went after troubling him for more than 3 months. The itch here appears to have been triggered by infectious micro-organisms living in the pond. The case is interesting because there were places on the man’s body where there was itching but no itches. In another case, a person got itching on inside of a thigh and the itch sensation did not go after itching the place it appeared to be coming from, but stopped after itching all over the thigh or on the other side of the thigh. In another case study, an itch crawled from the left side of a man’s neck down to the arm after he had undergone a surgery which entailed removal of a tumour from his spinal chord.
Phantom itch is an unresolved health issue related to nerves in some complex and inexplicable manner. The itching sensation is only the symptom of many underlying problems. A number of scientific studies are under way on the subject; but no definite conclusions have been reached yet.
In my analysis, Phantom itches can not be permanently cured through exercise and medications. The only way to get rid of them completely will be to consume unadulterated and genuinely organic food, pursue a healthy life style, cultivate temperate habits and above all give up or reduce wicked thoughts.
By Dr. Sachidanand Das