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A woman wearing a crop top has marks on her arm where she had recently scratched. With her other hand, she appears to be scratching an itch within her stomach, rather than on the skin covering it.

Does Your Gut “Itch?”

I’m always on the lookout for new research findings that could help people like us with IBS. My current regimen is holding symptoms at bay, but there’s always the lingering fear of flare-ups. Plus, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were simply a cure someday? Or even a pill we could take once a day?

Research about “itchy gut”

Any new findings feel like progress, though. Some Australian researchers have apparently identified a link between itchy skin and gut pain.1 They discovered those same receptors that cause itchy skin exists in the human gut as well. These receptors activate neurons, which in the skin, causing us to feel an itchy sensation. In the gut, this translates essentially into a serious and painful “gut itch” that we experience as pain.

Those of us who experience pain as a major IBS symptom may have more of these “itch” receptors in the gut than other people – and the more neurons to be activated, the greater the painful feeling transmitted to our brains.

By the way, the long-standing notion that an itch is really a mild form of pain has been discredited. The two sensations are related, but it’s more complicated than that. A study conducted at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that itch and pain are completely distinct, but both are linked to serotonin.2 I mention this because of the suspected brain-gut connection relative to serotonin and IBS. Antidepressants are a key pillar of my IBS regimen. Nothing is simple when it comes to IBS!

Scratching the surface on IBS pain

Why this is important: Targeting the gut-itch receptors could lead to a new way of treating chronic abdominal pain: addressing the underlying cause rather than the symptom. Traditional pain treatments such as opioids don’t work well and are associated with many other issues, as we now know. A future IBS medication could “block” these receptors and keep them from activating the “gut itch” signal – or at least keep it from reaching our brains.

Taking a “gut itch” more seriously

I’m very sensitive to the minimization of IBS and its symptoms. Calling something an “itch” may not make it sound very serious. But most of us have had itches that were more than a minor nuisance – they were absolutely maddening. A bout of eczema in my early 20s plagued me so much that I regularly scratched it until bled. And what studies have shown is that Mom was right: Scratching the itch DOES make it worse, as the receptors activate the neurons all over again.

So, we should think of “itch” as a description of the body’s reaction, not its impact.

I’m grateful for studies like these and for researchers who take IBS seriously. They’re absolutely critical. Healthcare professionals base their treatment decisions in part on the scientific literature and clinical evidence. In order to be taken seriously as patients, we need that evidence to be available. Looking forward to the next big leap in IBS knowledge!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The IrritableBowelSyndrome.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Joel Castro, et al. Activation of pruritogenic TGR5, MRGPRA3, and MRGPRC11 on colon-innervating afferents induces visceral hypersensitivity. JCI Insight, 2019; DOI: 10.1172/jci.insight.131712. Accessed: 1/9/2020.
  2. Zhao ZQ, Liu XY, Jeffry J, Karunarathne WKA, Li JL, Munanairi A, Zhou XY, Li H, Sun YG, Wan L, Wu ZY, Kim S, Huo FQ, Mo P, Barry DM, Zhang CK, Kim JY, Gautam N, Renner KJ, Li YQ, Chen ZF. Descending control of itch transmission by the serotonergic system via 5-HT1A-facilitated GRP-GRPR signaling. Neuron. vol. 84 (4), Nov. 19, 2014. Published online Oct. 30, 2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2014.10.003. Accessed: 1/9/2020.

Comments

  • ElectricErin
    6 days ago

    I get a really itchy torso, with no rash, particularly if I’m having to cook when I’m not hungry. Any suggestions/ similar experience anyone ( please!)

  • tmholland moderator
    5 days ago

    Hi @ElectricErin,

    Unfortunately, I have no experience with what you are struggling with, that said, I hope that someone chimes in with their experiences. I would speak with my doctor about this, if you haven’t already. Please keep us in the loop about your condition and remember we are always here for support. -Todd, IrritableBowelSyndrome.net Team

  • jaeger91
    2 weeks ago

    My GI explained IBS pain as visceral hypersensitivity and compared it to sunburned skin. Even a gentle touch can trigger pain on skin that has a sunburn, whereas with “normal” skin there would be no irritation or pain. Those of us with IBS pain are very easily triggered by the contractions that shouldn’t normally be noticeable.

  • Elizabeth Alvarez moderator
    1 week ago

    This makes so much sense to me. I’m glad you shared. Definitely rings true in my experience.

    Elizabeth (team member)

  • Lisa Carr author
    1 week ago

    Yes, that makes total sense to me. It’s hard for people with “cast iron stomachs” to understand, isn’t it? I sometimes feel like one of those flowers where the petals wilt at the slights touch.

    Thanks for sharing the sunburn analogy!

  • tmholland moderator
    2 weeks ago

    @jaeger91,

    Thank you for sharing this very interesting take on IBS. I’d never heard it explained this way. This is the beautiful thing about so many people sharing what they’ve learned from their varied experiences. I hope you are doing well today. -Todd, IrritableBowelSyndrome.net Team

  • Elizabeth Alvarez moderator
    2 weeks ago

    How interesting. The more I read about how complex our gut is and that it is literally our second brain, I become more and more fascinated and inspired to learn more.

    Thank you for the informative article. I too am looking forward to the next big leap in IBS knowledge.

    Elizabeth (team member)

  • Lisa Carr author
    1 week ago

    If only they would come faster! 🙂

    Lisa

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