The itchy and the scratchy

If you have an itch, what could you do but scratch it?

If you're Dr. Gil Yosipovitch, nicknamed the "Godfather of Itch," you could study it, too. Yosipovitch has investigated all things itch, including the relationship of itch and acne, eczema, and dry skin; how an itch can be felt on the body and in the mind; and how the brain reacts to scratching.

It may seem strange to devote so much effort to a small thing like an itch. You just scratch it and it goes away, right? Not so for some people. Itch can be a chronic, unbearable burden for people with certain skin conditions or other underlying conditions.

Many itches originate on the skin, some spring from disorders of the nervous system, and still others are creations of our minds. We most often get the urge to itch because of things that happen on the surface of our skin, like allergic reactions, dryness, or insect bites. Sometimes a rash accompanies a skin itch, but not always. Other itches stem from internal causes. Kidney failure, liver disease such as hepatitis, thyroid conditions, and some neurological disorders may cause an itchy sensation.

The common link between all the different sorts of itches? The undeniable reflex to scratch. You scratch, Yosipovitch found, because it actually helps to shut off a part of your brain associated with the emotional reaction to an itch, including the annoyance and memory of it. Over 20 years ago, itch researchers disproved the common belief that itch was actually just another form of pain. In fact, itch has its own nerve pathways and in some cases its own nerves. Like pain, an itch causes a reflex reaction. But whereas pain triggers the reflex to pull away draw back from it, an itch draws you right to where it lives – and then you scratch! But starting to scratch can set off a vicious cycle of itch-scratch-itch-scratch that can not only irritate but damage the skin.

Next up on Yosipovitch's research agenda: Why does watching someone scratching an itch – or just reading about the subject – make you feel the urge to scratch?


You're dozing off, and your whole body suddenly jerks like you just slipped off of a curb or missed a stair. Or you're sitting at your desk, working away and your eyelid all at once feels as though it's fluttering. Or maybe a lively dinner conversation gets punctuated by a case of hilarious, gulping hiccups. Each of these peculiar jolts is something called a myoclonic jerk – a brief, involuntary muscle twitch or spasm.

One kind of myoclonic jerk you may have felt is called a hypnic jerk or "sleep start." This is that jolt you may occasionally experience as you're just about to fall asleep or when a dream startles or abruptly awakens you. It happens to about 60-70% of us, and only now and then. Why it happens is a bit of a mystery. Ideas range from it being a natural part of the transition into sleep to it being a primitive, evolutionary memory of sleeping in trees.

Whatever their origin, sleep starts are usually nothing to worry about, unless you kick your partner or stub your toe on the bedpost. Fatigue or too much caffeine, stress, or exercise before bed seems to spark off more frequent and intense episodes. Seek help from a doctor or sleep specialist if hypnic jerks keep you from getting enough shuteye.

For your eyes to shut or open, they use a band of ocular muscles which twitch from time to time. Most of the time, eyelid twitches last only a few minutes but can recur over a few days. Like pre-sleep twitches, eyelid twitches seem to be caused by caffeine and fatigue. Contact your eye doctor if the fluttery lid persists, causes your eyelid to stay closed, involves other parts of your face, or is accompanied by redness, swelling, or discharge.

A common form of myoclonic jerk is the hiccup. A hiccup is a spontaneous spasm of the diaphragm, the wide, flat, strong muscle beneath the lungs. The spasm causes the vocal cords to close up and trigger that typical "hic" sound. Triggers include hot, spicy food, strong smells, laughing, coughing, or nothing at all.

Everyone hiccups, even babies still in the womb. This could be a way to exercise the developing respiratory system or to prevent amniotic fluid from getting into babies' lungs. One intriguing theory links an infant's suckling reflex to hiccups. Researchers suggest that hiccups could be a trait linking us to possible amphibious ancestors, like frogs and other gill-breathing animals.

Well, hiccups certainly can make you hop, but they usually only last a few minutes! If hiccups last more than a few days, see a doctor. In rare instances, hiccups can last for days, weeks, or even months and may be due to some more serious underlying cause.

History's many hiccup remedies

Even though they don't last too long, hiccup fits have inspired many "remedies" over the years. There is no definite way to stop hiccups, but you can give these a try. These hiccup cures have been advocated by health professionals.

  • Breathe into a paper bag.
  • Drink a glass of cold water.
  • Drink water quickly.
  • Eat a spoonful of sugar.
  • Hold your breath.
  • Swallow dry bread or crushed ice.
  • Gently pull on your tongue.
  • Gently rub your eyeballs.

The remedies below are less proven but some swear by them.

  • Sip back a spoonful of pickle juice, mustard, peanut butter, or French dressing.
  • Drink water through two straws at once.
  • When you feel a hiccup rising out of you, cough or scream. Repeat until it works.
  • Kiss.
  • Yawn.
  • Use a cotton swab to tickle the roof of your mouth.
  • Put an ice pack on your diaphragm.
  • Get someone to tickle you while you hold your breath.
  • Lightly tap the center of your forehead, above your nose.
  • Count back from 100.

The best remedy for hiccups? Patience.


On the topic of tickles

A tickle can be titillating or traumatizing (If you had a big sister who used to hold you down and perform tickle-torture, it may be the latter). Ticklish sensations come in two categories, with giggle-inducing titles: knismesis is that light-as-a-feather sensation, and gargalesis is the kind of tickling that gives you that big belly-laughing feeling. Some of the intriguing questions about the topic of tickle include why touch would inspire laughter and why we can't tickle ourselves.

Why would being poked and jabbed and stroked make us laugh, anyway? What's so funny about being tickled? Is there some link between humor and touch? Some researchers think of tickle as a kind of "play fighting," a safe, lighthearted way to learn how to defend ourselves. Others believe that the smiles and laughter you get from tickling are different from the smiles and laughter you get from a funny joke or a happy moment. Could those giggles and grins be more like nervous laughter or express submission to a superior? This seems possible, since most of us know the feeling of being tickled until it hurts, until we have to scream "Uncle!"

As to why we can't tickle ourselves, it may be because our brain is simply so smart and responsive. When someone else tickles us, our brain just doesn't have a chance to plan for a calm, measured response. Instead, most of us go into ticklish reflex-mode - giggling, laughing, twitching, and eventually pulling away like we're actually in pain. But when we try to tickle ourselves, it is thought that a part of the brain predicts the action and plans ahead for it. It seems that the whole surprise and suspense factor delays the brain's reaction long enough for the ticklish reflex to kick in.

Tickle research may seem like a laughable use of researchers' time, but it's turning up some fascinating theories about brain disorders, including schizophrenia. Looking at the brains of people who hear voices or experience delusions, it appears that this predictive ability doesn't work right. A person might think a particular thought but hear it as a "voice" because they lack the awareness to recognize it as a thought they generated on their own - sort of like being able to tickle themselves. Who knew a tickle could tell so much?

Our bodies' snaps, crackles, and pops

The human body seems to become noisier as it ages. Surprising creaks and snaps seem to emanate from our bones as we get up from bed in the morning. Or when we stand up or stretch a bit farther – or in a different direction – than we usually do. Other sounds crackle from inside our ears, and when we intentionally crack the joints in our knuckles or toes, we hear that familiar and relieving pop. Most of the noise is harmless or humorous, but what is the purpose of our body's snap-crackle-pop chorus?

The sound of creaking bones may call to mind spooky stories of wandering, clattering skeletons. But it's not really your bones making all that noise. The symphony of creaking, crackling, and snapping comes courtesy of your tendons, ligaments, and joints.

Tendons attach muscles to your bones, and ligaments tether one bone to the next and surround and strengthen joints. As you move and bend, these connective tissues stretch and spread across the surface of the joints. So, as you climb the stairs or stand up from the ground, you may hear a tendon or ligament snapping into place around the moving joints.

Your joints are encased in a protective synovial fluid containing nutrients and gases including oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. It's like a safety shell around your joints. If you "pop" a joint, the pressure from moving or stretching the joint causes the gas bubbles to burst from within the synovial fluid. You basically squeeze a bit of room into your joints. After about 20 minutes, the gases within the shell return to the synovial fluid, and that's why you can't pop the same joint again right away. In the short term, this feels good and is harmless. But over a lifetime of intentionally cracking and popping your joints, you may damage your joints.

Finger and toe joints pop often, but the sound of a clicking jaw may surprise you now and then, too. The upper and lower jaw joints have a cushion-like disk between them that occasionally slips out of place. As it slides back into place, it makes a clicking sound. For people with temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJD) this popping may accompany headaches, neck aches, joint tenderness, difficulty opening the mouth wide, and ear pain.

Noises may crackle and pop from inside of your ears, too. You can hear it when you swallow, as air passes into your middle ear from the back of your nose through your Eustachian tube. But when you're on a plane taking off or landing, it may sound much louder. That's because a quick change in altitude or pressure causes your Eustachian tube to work overtime, opening and closing over and over to equalize the pressure on both sides of your eardrums. You may also hear babies on board crying more because they don't know how to unblock their ears. Give baby a bottle or pacifier to suck, an action that opens their Eustachian tube. You can simply swallow, chew gum, or yawn to make yours open up again.