Brachioradial Pruritus – Neuropathic itch

Ross Hauser, MD., Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, PA-C

Among the many symptoms we see in our patients are problems of skin rashes and itching. The problem of itching can in itself be challenging. For many people, it is difficult to understand that this may not be a problem of the skin but rather a problem of neurology or nerves. If you are reading this article the most important thing we are going to cover is that one answer to stop the itching maybe by addressing neck instability and a problem of nerve impingement. In this article, we are going to present information on a very interesting case of “itching” in a patient that we treated. It was an uncontrolled itching from an unknown source. Once we found the source, problems of the nerves coming from the patient’s neck, and her cervical spine instability, her itching ended. Is this the answer for everyone? No. But it may be an answer for many people.

Article outline:

  • There is a malfunction in the brain’s network that is causing an abnormal itch.
  • “Many physicians including neurologists are unaware that neurological problems alone can cause chronic itch.”
  • A brief look at the brain network that may cause itch – we see that there are a lot of questions surrounding “abnormal” communications and sensations in the brain and the itch response.
  • Recently, research has uncovered a connection between Brachioradial Pruritus and cervical spine instability.
  • Chronic pruritus: Too much sun? Too much cervical spine and neck instability? Both?
  • When people have itching of unknown origins they will typically be sent off to the dermatologist. Then they will be told to avoid the sun.
  • Exacerbated by exposure to bright sunlight or ultraviolet radiation (UVR), and is associated with degenerative changes in the cervical spine.
  • Neurological disorders both from the central and peripheral nervous systems are associated with pruritus – a look at C5 to C8 dermatomal pruritus.
  • The patient underwent successful multilevel anterior cervical decompression and fusion and was instantly symptom-free.
  • Notalgia paresthetica and brachioradial pruritus.
  • Notalgia Paresthetica: Cervical Spine Disease and Neuropathic Pruritus.
  • The itch is coming from Chiari malformation and syrinx.
  • The itch is coming from a tumor pressing on the cervical spine at C5/C6 level.
  • Is the itching coming from nerve compression in the neck? What are we seeing in this image?

We get many emails from people with a diagnosis of “Brachioradial Pruritus.” Many people who contact us are very educated about their condition while others are more confused because as you will see in the correspondence below, their doctors are equally confused or in some cases dismissive.

As you are probably aware brachioradial pruritus gets its name from the connection to the brachioradialis muscle area in the arm from elbow to forearm. Itching is typically seen in this forearm region.
brachioradialis muscle

When initially diagnosed many people will be told to avoid sunlight or UV exposure. They, you, will be given prescriptions for various topical medications including steroids or capsaicin. You may also get antihistamines, other anti-inflammatories, and anti-depressants will usually round out the medication recommendations.

There is a malfunction in the brain’s network that is causing an abnormal itch

For many people, these treatments will help. For others, they will not help. The people that contact us who tell us treatments are not helping, they have an extra component to their case. Something is off in their neck. To us, that gives us a clue that cervical spine instability is causing a short circuit in the brain’s network causing the itch. Here is what these people are saying. (These emails have been edited for clarity). For further discussion please see my article Cervical Spine Instability and Potential Effects on Brain Physiology.

For some reason, no doctor in my area will help me with it.

I am going on 15 years of extremely itchy arms. I have self-diagnosed myself with Brachioradial Pruritus. For some reason, no doctor in my area will help me with it. They agree with me that I have this condition but it’s almost like I’m a lost cause. I also have eczema so when they see that they just give me more steroid creams and medications. Nothing works for my arms. I do have an issue with my upper neck area. . .

Seen a neurologist that had never heard of the condition and thought I was crazy.

I have been living with Brachioradial pruritus for over 20 years. I went to doctors who gave me creams that did nothing, saw a neurologist that had never heard of the condition, and thought I was crazy. I basically self-diagnosed and finally got a couple of doctors and physical therapists to believe me. We even tried a steroid injection in my neck, but only caused more itching. I finally gave in and started taking pregabalin. It is manageable some days, some days not. I couldn’t tell you what it would mean to me to get treatment for my condition.

I have been on Neurontin (Gabapentin) for years and have neck traction at home.

I have been suffering from stinging, itching, and pain in both arms. No one could help me and on my own, I found the diagnosis of Brachioradial Pruritis. I usually suffer from this burning itch pain equally in both arms but recently one of my arms became so bad I now have bruises from holding and squeezing my arm to relieve the pain. I have been on Neurontin (Gabapentin) for years and have neck traction at home to help relieve the symptoms. I am sleep deprived of it and now it is affecting my daily life.

My dermatologist wanted me to see a neurologist to have my neck looked at.

I was diagnosed with brachioradial pruritus by a board-certified dermatologist. She wanted me to see a neurologist to have my neck looked at as she suspected my problems were associated with something in my neck not being right.  . . I do feel crunching in my neck when I turn it but it doesn’t really hurt. I have a knot in my shoulder blade that flares up if I overwork it and my lower back will hurt if I overdo it physically.

Itching, vertigo, and a clear neck MRI.

For the last 2-3 years I have had severe itching on my forearm and lower bicep area. Due to the fairly recent onset of severe vertigo, I have had brain and cervical spine MRIs which show nothing to indicate vertigo (from a traditional medicine standpoint) but they clearly show degeneration, disc height loss, flattening of ventral cord surface in the cervical spine at C3-C4, C5-C6, and C6-C7.

My dermatologist said a chiropractor might help.

I have been having severe itching in both arms. My doctor referred me to a dermatologist who gave the diagnosis of Brachioradial Pruritus but did not really help. My dermatologist said a chiropractor might help. Several months ago I fell and hit the back of my head. I developed neck pain but as I exercise often, I just thought the minor neck problems were from exercising. I went to a neurologist yesterday and he said the diagnosis and my problems were not coming from my neck, he prescribed Gabapentin. He never checked my neck even though I told him it was bothering me. When I hold my head back and turn it side to side I can hear a cracking noise and sometimes a little pop.

My neck MRI apparently shows typical cervical degeneration due to aging my neurologist says there is nothing further to investigate there.

I have experienced intermittent and often excruciating stinging/stabbing/itching in both arms for over 20 years. No doctor has provided any glimmer of an idea as to the cause and only want to prescribe medications such as Gabapentin and Lyrica to quell the symptoms, but I am unable to tolerate the side effects of these medications. I have suggested to my neurologist that brachioradial pruritus might be the cause–I’ve had over 20 years to research–but my neck MRI apparently shows typical cervical degeneration due to aging (I am 56) and he feels that there is nothing further to investigate there.

I had a full disc replacement on my c4/c5

I have anxiety and depression when the itch is out of control. Ice is the only thing that seems to help. I had a full disc replacement on my c4/c5 and never had this problem until post-surgery, It comes and goes, but when it comes in comes with fury.

Many physicians including neurologists are unaware that neurological problems alone can cause chronic itch.”

In 2011 Anne Louise Oaklander, MD, Ph.D. of the departments of Neurology and Pathology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School wrote in the journal Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery: (1)

“Many physicians including neurologists are unaware that neurological problems alone can cause chronic itch. Neuropathic itch and pain are signaling abnormalities – the source of the problem is not where the symptoms are felt. Like neuropathic pain, neuropathic itch is still poorly understood despite fundamental advances in understanding the mechanisms of itch in the normal nervous system. . . .Neuropathic itch does not often respond to antihistamines, topical steroids, or other medications effective for the conventional itch. Furthermore, like other neurological symptoms, the itch can signal a potentially serious neurological problem that might need treatment. Most neurology textbooks and training do not discuss the localization and etiology of errant itch, so not all neurological consultations will be insightful. A dermatologist should first examine the patient to exclude conventional causes of itch before requesting neurological consultation.”

Now to 2020

A September 2020 French study (2) showed the confusion in identifying neurological itch and the confusion of treatment which is often ineffective.

  • Chronic pruritus can occur in the absence of skin diseases and may be secondary to various causes. In this study, patients who sought dermatological treatment were studied.
    • The study had 197 patients with chronic pruritus without skin disease.
    • The average age of the patient was about 67. Almost an even split between men and women.
  • The main causes identified were psychogenic pruritus (41.1% of patients). The disease was coming from emotional or psychological distress.
  • Neuropathic (36.5%),
  • Endocrine (12.2%),
  • Hematological (9.6%) (Blood type cancers)
  • and iatrogenic reaction to some type of medical treatment (7.1%) causes.
  • The cause was unknown in 20.8% of patients.
  • The total percentage is more than 100 because some patients had several etiologies.
  • Concerning symptomatic treatments, emollients (creams and ointments) were prescribed for 40.6% of patients, and topical steroids for 20.3%.
  • Among systemic treatments, gabapentinoids (33%), antidepressants (27.4%), and antihistamines (25.3%) were prescribed. The efficacy of these treatments was rarely complete. (Did not work that well).

A brief look at the brain network that may cause itch – we see that there are a lot of questions surrounding “abnormal” communications and sensations in the brain and the itch response.

the brain network that may cause itch

Let’s look at a November 2022 paper in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology (3). In this paper, university researchers from Germany understood that “patients with chronic pruritus have a low quality of life, thus it is important to gain a better understanding of the underlying processes.”

Their exploration of the underlying process was as follows (we added explanatory notes).

“Previous functional magnetic resonance imaging studies at rest (MRI with the brain “at rest” can give evidence of an altered brain network or functional disorders) have shown that mainly areas associated with the default mode network (DMN), sensorimotor (SMN), frontoparietal (FPN) and salience networks (SN) are involved in the processing of itch in patients with chronic pruritus (CP).” NOTE: These are areas considered an awake rest phase of the brain that allows your mind to wander and is responsible for producing daydreams. It is also in this area that the brain recognizes the severity of itch and may allow for hallucinations such as tactile hallucinations and abnormal sense of skin sensation.

The sensorimotor system (in simplest terms, an area of the brain that recognizes itch and commands the body to scratch), frontoparietal (an area of the brain that may provoke an unnormal itch response), and salience networks (one aspect of the salience network is the ability to downregulate the default mode network and perhaps downregulate itch response) are involved in the processing of itch in patients with chronic pruritus, as well as the cortico-striatal circuit (the brain’s area that recognizes among other things, scratching and itch feel good), which is involved in the motoric preparation of scratching.

So basically we see that there are a lot of questions surrounding “abnormal” communications and sensations in the brain and the itch response.

The focus of this study was to “understand functional connectivity (the communications between the networks that could control itch)  patterns of resting-state networks in patients with inflammatory atopic dermatitis  or with neuropathic brachioradial pruritus compared with healthy controls.” In other words, how do the above-mentioned brain networks and regions correlate in that problem of itch?

The researchers of this study found “a decreased functional connectivity (decreased or abnormal) brain communications particularly in the default mode network (the place where abnormal sensation comes forward) at rest in patients with brachioradial pruritus. “These results seem to indicate that central connectivity patterns at rest differentially encode itch in brachioradial pruritus and inflammatory atopic dermatitis.” What should be pointed out is that abnormality in the resting-state connectivity is an itching response without stimuli or known cause as opposed to inflammatory atopic dermatitis or better known as eczema or psoriasis where there can be many observable causes.

So what does all this mean? There is a malfunction in the brain network causing an abnormal itch.

Recently, research has uncovered a connection between Brachioradial Pruritus and cervical spine instability

The connection between brachioradial pruritus and cervical spine instability is not a new understanding, this connection has been documented for many years. Here, we will be covering the most recent research.

An August 2022 paper from Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, published in the Dermatology online journal (4) offered these treatment guidelines and suggestions after reviewing previously published studies on brachioradial pruritis. “Treatment modalities with the greatest number of reported successful therapeutic trials include gabapentin and tricyclic antidepressants. In patients with confirmed cervical spine disease, spine-directed therapies such as epidural injections were found to be beneficial.”

In February 2022, doctors at the Neurological Surgery department, Norton Neuroscience Institute in Louisville, Kentucky wrote in the medical Cureus (5) of nine patients diagnosed with brachioradial pruritus of the arms and forearms. Eight patients suffered from one side itch and the ninth in both arms. All nine patients had cervical spine disease, with a varied diagnosis of disc protrusions, cervical spondylosis, cervical spinal stenosis, and/or foraminal stenosis. The EMG abnormalities indicated chronic radiculopathy involving C6 in six patients and C5 and C6 in one patient.

Electrodiagnosis (EDX), measuring speed and possible disruption of electrical impulses in muscles and nerves, revealed abnormalities in eight (89%) patients. Denervation changes were recorded by needle electromyography (EMG) in eight (89%) patients. The researchers concluded, “in this series of patients (brachioradial pruritus) was accompanied by chronic cervical radiculopathy involving predominantly C6 and C5.” Finally, ” EDX and cervical spine MR imaging should be considered essential investigations in the evaluation of patients with brachioradial pruritus.”

Recently research has uncovered this connection. A July 2021 research paper (6) made these observations on this apparent connection:

“Brachioradial pruritus is an enigmatic condition often encountered by dermatologists and passed off as a benign itch. It is “idiopathic” pruritus (the doctors are not sure what is causing it), presenting as severe itching. . .  The physical examination may be unremarkable except for mild pruritic lesions. Hence, the patient is treated with local applications of sunscreens, anti-inflammatory agents, antihistamines, and steroids, most of which prove to be ineffective. Dermatomal localization of pruritis has suggested cervical myeloradiculopathy as a novel etiology and this has been (discussed) in recent studies.”

The doctors of this paper went on to describe a case of a young man with brachioradial pruritus and were diagnosed who was later discovered to have a C6-7 intramedullary cervical cord lesion.

All Brachioradial Pruritus patients should undergo cervical spine MRI to assess the potential underlying degenerative cervical pathology

In an October 2023 case history presented by doctors at the Orlando Health Orlando Regional Medical Center and published in the medical journal Cureus (x) the doctors offered a case of a w a 71-year-old woman with a complex medical history and itching. The woman’s medical history included “arthritis, migraines, anxiety, depression, hypertension, myocardial infarction with stent placement, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, rotator cuff repair, and significant cervical spondylosis was seen at the pain management clinic for an unusual itching sensation in her forearms.” The woman told the doctors that she had been suffering with severe itching for multiple years. The itching was  intermittent lasting for over a month and resolving gradually. “The itching sensation localized in her forearms with an average of 7 in intensity on a scale of 0-10. Symptoms improved when ice packs were applied to the affected areas and worsened during times of warm weather. She was evaluated by dermatology and found no relief with physical therapy, topical betamethasone, venlafaxine, or gabapentin.”

After a serious of tests did not reveal any obvious cause of the itching, the patient was sent for imaging of the spine included cervical X-rays and MRIs. X-ray of the cervical spine with flexion and extension revealed moderate multilevel spondylosis of the cervical spine with intervertebral disc height loss between C4-C5 and C6-C7.

For treatments, the patient was offered a cervical epidural injection. A month after the injection she returned for follow up and she ranked the itching sensation at 3/10. At that time, she also reported a 50% symptomatic relief of the pruritus and felt an improvement in her neck flexion, particularly in extension and flexion. During this interval, there were no flare-ups of pruritus in the arms. Three months after her initial injection, she returned for a second injection. Another ESI was administered in the C6-C7 epidural space.

The doctors of this study concluded: “We advocate that all Brachioradial Pruritus patients should undergo cervical spine MRI to assess the potential underlying degenerative cervical pathology, particularly in cases where topical and oral treatments have proven ineffective. When conservative measures fall short, CESIs may offer a viable avenue for achieving satisfactory symptomatic relief. ”

A miserable, itchy patient.

Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, PA-C: Attending clinician.

  • When this patient came in she was miserable. Itching up and down her arms. She was not sleeping and had tried many treatments and remedies to get rid of the itching.
  • Initially, she thought the itching was from too much sun.
  • We spoke about a condition of bilateral (both arms) upper arm itching called brachial radial pruritus that can be traced to the cervical spine nerve roots.

Chronic pruritus: Too much sun? Too much cervical spine and neck instability? Both?

Many people contact us after years of topical steroid cream, high doses of gabapentin, muscle relaxants, and cortisone injection, among other treatments. They have complaints of insomnia, stress, anxiety, irritability, and depression.

A March 2022 study from Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam published in the journal Experimental Dermatology (7) examined various treatments for chronic pruritus. The researchers noted for their colleagues that many patients know, chronic itch is “diverse in its etiologies, and it is notoriously hard to treat.” In this study, the doctors examined the overlapping symptoms and conditions of itch and pain and the demonstrated effectiveness of neurostimulation in the treatment of selected chronic pain conditions. The doctors then examined whether the effectiveness of neurostimulation for pain conditions could be effective in chronic itch. In reviewing previously published research, the doctors investigated various neurostimulation modalities for the treatment of refractory (unresponsive to treatments) itch.

  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) was the most investigated modality and in the largest number of conditions.
  • Other modalities were cutaneous field stimulation, pain scrambler, transcranial direct current stimulation, and peripheral nerve field stimulation.
  • All (included) studies of this research reported a positive effect of at least one neurostimulation modality. Our review indicates that electrical neurostimulation could be considered for the treatment of refractory chronic itch of selected etiologies, such as atopic dermatitis or burn pruritus.

When people have itching of unknown origins they will typically be sent off to the dermatologist. Then they will be told to avoid the sun.

When people have itching of unknown origins they will typically be sent off to the dermatologist. This probably happened to you. The initial treatments offered were probably more potent or heavy-duty prescription ointment or creams than those you had already bought over the counter or on the internet. When these treatments are not working or have been eliminated from being useful for you, the next step is of course to dig deeper and look for other things.

If you are often out in the sun, the sun becomes an easy culprit. As you will see in our patient’s story below, she was told by her dermatologist to avoid the sun, after two months of sun avoidance and no relief our patient decided that the sun was not the problem.

A 2005 paper in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (8) found that the itching described as brachioradial pruritus could be from the sun, it could be from neck instability causing compression in the cervical root nerves among many causes. People could also be at greater risk if they had neck instability and problems in the cervical spine and spent a lot of time in the sun.

So it could be from too much sun, cervical spine, and neck instability, or both. Here is what the research says:

“There has been controversy regarding the cause of brachioradial pruritus: is it caused by nerve compression in the cervical spine or is it caused by prolonged exposure to sunlight? The temporal course (the time of year you get it, spring compared to fall for instance) of the brachioradial pruritus and the histological changes in the skin similar to those caused by ultraviolet light, indicate that sunlight is an eliciting (can cause the itching) factor and that cervical spine disease can be a predisposing (puts you at higher risk) factor.”

Exacerbated by exposure to bright sunlight or ultraviolet radiation (UVR), and is associated with degenerative changes in the cervical spine.

As stated throughout this article, cases of Brachioradial pruritus are thought to be rare, and when a case is considered strange and rare enough it is published in a medical journal. We are finding these cases to be more common in our patient population and these people’s stories well match the examples from independent clinics published in the medical literature. That is a terrible itch with no diagnosis and no effective treatment.

This is a case history presented by doctors at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care, and Pain Medicine, Harvard Medical School. It was published in the medical journal Case Reports in Women’s Health. (9) Here are the case and summary explanatory notes:

Diagnosis is difficult and is usually delayed for two to three years.

“Brachioradial pruritus is a specific subtype of neuropathic pruritus that commonly presents in women. This condition is a type of neurological itch that mostly involves the dorsal forearm. It is more common in fair-skinned females, is exacerbated by exposure to bright sunlight or ultraviolet radiation (UVR), and is associated with degenerative changes in the cervical spine. Diagnosis is difficult, and is usually delayed for two-three years.”

A patient who suffered brachioradial pruritus for many years and was misdiagnosed by multiple specialists

“(In this case history the doctors describe) a patient who suffered brachioradial pruritus for many years and was misdiagnosed by multiple specialists until she presented to (the) pain clinic. The patient had undergone invasive diagnostic testing by previous specialists but this had not led to a diagnosis. After a thorough history and exam, the diagnosis of brachioradial pruritus was considered and the patient was treated with anticonvulsant medications, as these have been shown to be effective in this condition. This case is of interest to all physicians treating female patients as consideration of this diagnosis can avoid unnecessary invasive diagnostic testing.”

What the doctors at Harvard Medical School describe is what we see in many people that come to our center. Difficult to understand the problem. A difficult-to-understand problem is a difficult-to-treat problem. People lived with it. For some of our patients with cervical instability, in the past, they could get an itching rash when exposed to too much sun was an understood consequence of being outside. The idea that it was coming from a neck problem, may not be as well understood.

Digital Motion X-Ray (DMX) demonstrates cervical spine instability.

From those of you reading this article and researching your itching problem the idea that your problem is coming from the neck or nerves may not be a new one as you may have symptoms of neck pain and instability and itching is one skin manifestation of many you may suffer from. Please see our article: Skin Pain, Hot, and Cold Skin: Are fixing upper cervical neck instability problems the missing treatment?

The images of the patient’s neck will be explained below. Based on these images we could then suggest beyond a reasonable doubt that the patient’s itching was related to her cervical spine instability.

So now let’s explain:

  • What is a DMX digital motion x-ray?
  • What does the image below mean?
  • How does this address the problem of itching?

To confirm our suspicions that brachial radial pruritus, the severe itching in both her arms was coming from nerve compression in the cervical spine we ordered a digital motion x-ray of her neck

If you are watching along with the video we are at 1:40:

  • To confirm our suspicions that brachial radial pruritus, the severe itching in both her arms was coming from nerve compression in the cervical spine we ordered a digital motion x-ray of her neck.
  • A digital motion X-ray is an X-ray movie that allows us to see cervical segment instability or cervical ligament laxity in the neck that could cause or allow pinched, herniated, compressed nerves to occur. These nerves of course run through the cervical spine.
  • The image above on the left is an image of the patient leaning forward, head down. The image to the right is the patient with her head back, and chin in the air.

What do the red lines mean?

  • The red lines should be reflected as a continuous line. The continuous nature would show us that the cervical vertebrae are lined up in their proper alignment, and the neck is stable. That is not the case however in this patient. What we see is this.
    • Left side image: with the patient looking down we see that the line displaces at C3/C4. The vertebrae are in motion or they are hypermobile, not where they are supposed to be. This is cervical instability and vertebrae in motion can press on the cervical nerve roots that pass between them and go down your arm. The condition also exists at C4/C5 and C5/C6.
    • Right side image: with the patient looking up we see that the line displaces at C4/C5. The value of the DMX motion picture x-ray is that we can see that on certain movements the patient’s symptoms can worsen or can be lessened.

Irritating Itching, Pruritis from spinal instability

  • A patient had horrific itching in the arms. She went to the doctor and nobody seemed to be able to help her.
  • Later it was revealed that the patient had dizziness, clicking, and grinding in her neck and she had cervical spine instability. Among her many symptoms, her cervical spine instability was causing the itching. After treatment, we were able to resolve her itching issues. That was about ten years ago.

Itching and nerve irritation

  • Itching can be from any type of nerve irritation. You may have been given a diagnosis of pruritus. If you have sciatic-like problems you may have been diagnosed with lumbar radicular pruritus. In other words, the sciatic nerve is getting irritated and causing itching in the leg or in the arm. This is a diagnosis of brachial radial pruritus or brachial pruritus and if it involves the neck is often called cervical pruritus.

One side of the body itching

  • In other patients, we see one side of the body itching. This is an indication that the problem is coming from the neck. In people like this, we examine them with a Digital Motion X-Ray (DMX) to determine the amount of cervical spine instability and if this is indeed a factor in their unexplainable and difficult-to-treat itch sensation. If the itch is on the left side of the body DMX will typically reveal cervical spine instability on that side of the body. We typically focus, based on decades of experience in treating these chronic neck cases on the C1-C2 when there are symptoms of pruritus although cervical spine instability at multiple regions can cause many conditions including symptoms.

In the video above the title refers to the strange sensations that a patient may experience with cervical spine instability that causes compression on their nerves and spinal column. One of the reasons we call these symptoms strange is that many of the people we see have been looking for and chasing a viable treatment for problems that are neurologic-like in nature. We see many people with these challenges.

Neurological disorders both from the central and peripheral nervous systems are associated with pruritus – a look at C5 to C8 dermatomal pruritus

In October 2021, Brazilian researchers (10) published their observations on the impact of neurological disorders both from the central and peripheral nervous systems on the development and severity of pruritus. Specifically, they looked at correlations between symptomatic dermatomes (areas of the skin where the rash has appeared. This area of skin provides sensory input to the central nervous system through on specific nerve) and alterations in the myotomes (the sensory input of the muscles in that area below the skin), as evidenced by electroneuromyography (ENMG).

They looked at 46 with patients Brachioradial Pruritus who had an upper limb ENMG.

  • Among 46 patients with C5 to C8 dermatomal pruritus, the researchers evaluated 113 symptomatic dermatomal areas.
  • Overall, 39 (85%) patients had radicular involvement, and 28 (60%)
  • A total of 80% of the patients with complaints at C7 and 47% at C6 had radicular involvement at the same level.

The researchers concluded: peripheral nervous system involvement is associated with Brachioradial Pruritus.

The patient underwent successful multilevel anterior cervical decompression and fusion and was instantly symptom-free.

The concept of itching skin or Brachioradial Pruritis is still considered somewhat of a medical ailment in the medical community. Here is a case history reported by the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Hospital for Special Surgery, and published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (11). This is what the attending physicians wrote:

“(This paper presents) the case of a 56-year-old man with a 6-year history of disabling chronic bilateral upper extremity pruritus and pain as well as concurrent neck pain. The patient presented to our office after multiple inconclusive diagnostic evaluations (dermatology, rheumatology, neurology, and psychiatry) and unsatisfactory multimodal conservative treatment attempts.

His symptoms markedly impeded his ability to get restful sleep. Imaging of the cervical spine revealed multilevel cervical spondylosis, spinal stenosis with cord compression, and multilevel foraminal stenosis. The patient underwent successful multilevel anterior cervical decompression and fusion and was instantly symptom-free. The present case highlights that patients complaining of itching of the dorsolateral forearms of seemingly unknown etiology should undergo a workup of the cervical spine. If conservative treatment fails, surgical decompression may be considered in select patients.”

As you read in this case the patient’s itching was resolved by cervical fusion surgery. Many people have very successful spinal fusions that helped resolve their symptoms. These are typically the people we do not see at our center. We see the people for whom cervical fusion is not considered a good risk, have had failed cervical fusion, or want to explore every option before having the surgery.

One option is “anterior cervical discectomy and fusion as a last resort “

In August 2022, doctors in the Department of Neurosurgery, Royal Preston Hospital, Preston, UK described a case of a 63-year-old woman in the Journal of surgical case reports. (12) In this case the patient had a C5-C6 disc protrusion. Anterior cervical discectomy and fusion were performed leading to the resolution of symptoms. The doctors noted: “The case emphasizes the beneficial role of anterior cervical discectomy and fusion as a last resort in patients with refractory pruritus of discogenic cause.”

Notalgia paresthetica and Brachioradial pruritus

Notalgia paresthetica and Brachioradial pruritus are often spoken of as very similar problems that require very similar treatments. It is possible that you reading this article may have been diagnosed with one of these disorders and then have that diagnosis reversed in favor of the other disorder.

In May 2020, doctors writing in the journal BioMed Central Neurology (13) described Notalgia paresthetica as “a sensory neuropathy characterized by localized pruritus and pain, presenting with or without a well-circumscribed hyperpigmented patch in the upper back. Abnormal sensations, such as burning, numbness, and paresthesia are often present in patients with Notalgia paresthetica.”

In this study, the doctors were looking at the effectiveness of treatments in treating Notalgia paresthetica. We will see the similarities in Brachioradial pruritus treatments and a structural cervical spine connection.

  • A total of 80 patients (45 patients with Notalgia paresthetica and 35 suffering from dorsalgia (back pain without clear structural damage typically caused by overuse) without Notalgia paresthetica) were included in the study.
  • The treatment: Intradermally (under the skin injections) administered lidocaine diluted with saline into the upper back over three sessions.
  • The injection was performed locally at 1-cm intervals around the hyperpigmented patch and segmentally along the C2-T6 spinous processes.

Let’s note that the researchers found: “Forty-six cervical and/or thoracic degenerative changes or herniated nucleus pulposus were detected in patients with Notalgia paresthetica. There was a significantly higher number of (herniated discs) at the C6-7 segment and cervical degenerative changes in the Notalgia paresthetica group.

The researcher’s conclusion? “Cervical degenerative changes and herniated discs of the C6-7 segment seem to be contributing factors for Notalgia paresthetica. Local lidocaine can be effective for pain relief and pruritus in Notalgia paresthetica.

Notalgia Paresthetica: Cervical Spine Disease and Neuropathic Pruritus

In January 2021, a case history was presented in the journal Cureus (14) from internal medicine doctor Ayesha Akram of Rawalpindi Medical University in Pakistan. Dr. Akram writes of a “57-year-old female with a (six month) history of neck pain presented with refractory (non-responsive to treatment) Neuropathic Pruritus. Through a diagnostic x-ray, cervical degenerative changes were discovered at the C5-C6 level, and she has been prescribed a course of cervical traction. The cervical (spine instability) theory of Neuropathic Pruritus is presented and is supported with x-ray findings in this case.”

Here is the case: A 57-year-old female with a six-month history of refractory, recurrent bouts of localized pruritus in otherwise healthy skin, most characteristic along the superior left posterior thoracic wall (upper left back). The patient also had chronic mild neck pain, which she rated as 3/10 on a zero to 10 numerical pain rating scale. She only felt an itch on the skin level, (not deep) and the itch did not change from day to night the itch sensation would be with her longer than any inciting stimulus. Scratching “provided only fleeting relief.”

A trial of topical clobevate (corticosteroid) twice a day), topical nerisone (corticosteroid) twice a day, topical lidocaine (local anesthetic) three times daily, and oral desloratadine (histamine H1 receptor antagonist) 5 mg twice a day provided little relief to the itch. She also suffered from peptic ulcer disease, postmenopausal lumbar osteoporosis, and obesity.

Because she was not being helped with current medications, treatment was directed at the underlying neck pathology. She was prescribed a cervical soft collar, spinal manipulation, and a six-week course of mechanical traction of the C4-C6 vertebrae; and advised follow-up after two months. She was also educated on the association with cervical spine disease, the use of a cervical soft collar, and proper neck posture. A patient-reported outcome is warranted at the follow-up to fully evaluate the effect of conservative (noninvasive) spinal treatment as first-line therapy for Neuropathic Pruritus.

Here is a case where these pinched nerves, can cause a neuropathic itch

Research note: Neuropathic itch can be caused by many diseases in addition to cervical spine instability. As mentioned above, if you are reading this article and you have suffered from this challenge, it would probably be safe to say that you have been to a dermatologist and followed the path that your blood work and other testing took you until you received some type of treatment or treatments and that has not worked that well for you.

The itch is coming from Chiari malformation and syrinx

When we see patients with problems of cervical spine instability, Chiari malformation, and syrinx, these patients come in with more symptoms than they can even list. One problem they may have is the itch.

A report published in the PM & R: The Journal of Injury, Function, and Rehabilitation (15) describes such as case.

“This case describes a 56-year-old man with known thoracic spinal cord injury undergoing evaluation for a pruritic rash on the dorsolateral aspect of his forearms with no upper extremity neuromuscular symptoms. Common diagnoses were considered and treated with little success. The diagnosis of brachioradial pruritus was made, and evaluation for possible causes revealed a large cervicothoracic syrinx. To our knowledge, brachioradial pruritus has not been described previously as the presenting sign of post-traumatic syringomyelia.”

As stated numerous times in this article, when doctors come upon a case that is strange, rare, or even unexplainable, they publish a case history to tell other doctors about what they found.

The itch is coming from a tumor pressing on the cervical spine at C5/C6 level

In October 2021, doctors in Germany reported (16) a case of a 57-year-old slightly obese woman with a localized itch on the arms accompanied by stinging and burning sensations. Evidence of scratching was observed upon clinical examination. The MRI examination of the cervical spine revealed a meningioma at C5/C6 level. The diagnosis of brachioradial pruritus due to compression of the cervical myelon was further supported by a positive ice-pack sign (ice applied to the patient provided relief). Disc herniation or prolapse, foraminal stenosis, and degenerative alterations constitute other possible causes of brachioradial pruritus.

Is the itching coming from nerve compression in the neck? What are we seeing in this image?

Is the itching coming from nerve compression in the neck? What are we seeing in this image?

Looking for a narrowing of the nerve space

If you have cervical spine problems and itching is just one manifestation of your symptoms, you do not need a lengthy explanation of what cervical foraminal stenosis is. If your doctors are starting to explore a cervical spine connection to a vast array of neurological type symptoms that you are suffering from and this is “new territory,” in your medical journal, here is a brief explanation. Cervical foraminal stenosis is the narrowing of the openings between the bones of the cervical vertebrae. The tunnel that your nerves move through is getting narrower. As these tunnels close in the nerves can be compressed and nerve message traffic comes to a standstill. If your nerves are not able to transmit correct messages you get neuralgic symptoms including skin problems and uncontrollable itching.

The tunnels that we are talking about are called foramen, the closing of the tunnels either through boney buildup on the tunnel walls or the compression of the walls is called stenosis.

At 2:45 of the video. We had our clue that this was where the itching was coming from. 

We did a view of the neural foramina to see if she had any narrowing of the neural foramina.

  • What we were looking for is where the nerve roots exit the spinal column if there were:
    • Nerve compression on certain movements.
    • The existence of a cervical neural foraminal stenosis.
    • In general, nerve compression could lead to pain, numbness, and itching. We want to note here that this patient did not have neck pain or numbness that extended into the arms. This is not typical of the patients we see.
    • But we did see that as she moved her neck, the foramen openings at C4/C5 and C5/C6 were narrowing and pinching on the nerves. We had our clue that this is where the itching was coming from. Nerves at C4/C5 and C5/C6.

What did we do about it?

This patient received Prolotherapy treatments. After the first treatment, she was able to sleep. After the second treatment, the itching went away. Disclaimer: These results may not be typical. The treatments may not help some people. Cervical spine instability may not be the cause of your itching.

Caring Medical has published dozens of papers on Prolotherapy injections as a treatment for difficult-to-treat musculoskeletal disorders. Prolotherapy is an injection technique utilizing simple sugar or dextrose. Our research documents our experience with our patients. The treatment is explained further below, but first the patient’s story.

Before we get to the patient’s story, please be aware that her story is an individual experience reflecting on her experience with our treatments.  Results may vary among different individuals. Not everyone will have the same level of success.

The patient’s story begins at 4:20 of the video

I have been having severe itching in my forearms for at least a month and a half. Then it progressed to my upper arms and it started to be accompanied by nerve-ending pain and burning. If I scratched my skin, it made it much worse, severely worse.

I had researched a lot and found that I thought it might be what they called Brachioradial Pruritis which could come from your neck.

I like to work out and be active so I didn’t feel like I was having neck issues or that I was doing things to irritate my nerves.

I had had Prolotherapy treatments in the past with Ross Hauser, MD, and now with his physician assistant Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, PA-C. The treatments helped me with wrist and hip pain. So when I began to suspect my neck was a problem I thought of Prolotherapy. But first, I went to a neurologist. They agreed with me that we should look at my neck and get an EMG and some imaging studies. I had a slight bulging of the discs. The intimal treatment reaction to these findings was to increase my medications to try to help me sleep at night. That did not help. The only thing that did help was ice packs. But I knew I could not spend the rest of my life sleeping with ice packs. The doctors I was seeing could not help me. They told me to come back in six months so that they could monitor the progression or regression of symptoms. I told these doctors that this plan was not helping me, I have two six-year-olds who need me and I have to function.

After the first Prolotherapy treatment  I had maybe two bouts of itching within two weeks but it wasn’t anything as severe as I’ve had before. After the second treatment, I had zero symptoms. I can sleep every night I’m not taking one thing for the pain.

The treatment of cervical spine instability at the Hauser Neck Center – Research on cervical instability and Prolotherapy

In the above article, we suggest that many of the problems are related to other symptoms, itching, skin sensations, and burning nerve pain. can be treated by addressing cervical spine instability in the neck. There are many ways to treat this problem. Our preferred choice is regenerative medicine injections that begin with Prolotherapy.

Caring Medical has published dozens of papers on Prolotherapy injections as a treatment for difficult-to-treat musculoskeletal disorders. Prolotherapy is an injection technique utilizing simple sugar or dextrose. Our research documents our experience with our patients.

In 2015, our research team at Caring Medical published findings in the European Journal of Preventive Medicine (17) investigating the role of Prolotherapy in the reduction of pain and symptoms associated with increased cervical intervertebral motion, structural deformity, and irritation of nerve roots. Irritation of nerve roots causes many of the symptoms and challenges our patients face.

Prolotherapy addresses cervical spine instability by addressing problems with the structures that hold the neck in its rightful place. The cervical spine ligaments. Ligaments are bands of connective tissue that hold C1 to C2 and C2 to C3 and C3 to C4, etc. In the images above of the patient’s DMX, we saw that the vertebrae were not being held in their proper place. This is where we directed the Prolotherapy injections as demonstrated in the above video.

In our research study, twenty-one study participants were selected from patients seen for the primary complaint of neck pain. Following a series of Prolotherapy injections, patient-reported assessments were measured using questionnaire data, including a range of motion (ROM), crunching, stiffness, pain level, numbness, and exercise ability, between 1 and 39 months post-treatment (average = 24 months).

  • Ninety-five percent of patients reported that Prolotherapy met their expectations in regard to pain relief and functionality. Significant reductions in pain at rest, during normal activity, and during exercise were reported.
  • Eighty-six percent of patients reported overall sustained improvement, while 33 percent reported complete functional recovery.
  • Thirty-one percent of patients reported complete relief of all recorded symptoms. No adverse events were reported.

We concluded that statistically significant reductions in pain and functionality, indicate the safety and viability of Prolotherapy for cervical spine instability.

In 2014, we published a comprehensive review of the problems related to weakened damaged cervical neck ligaments in The Open Orthopaedics Journal (18) We are honored that this research has been used in at least 6 other medical research papers by different authors exploring our treatments and findings and cited, according to Google Scholar, in more than 40 articles.

This is what we wrote in this paper: “To date, there is no consensus on the diagnosis of cervical spine instability or on traditional treatments that relieve chronic neck instability issues like those mentioned above. In such cases, patients often seek out alternative treatments for pain and symptom relief. Prolotherapy is one such treatment that is intended for acute and chronic musculoskeletal injuries, including those causing chronic neck pain related to underlying joint instability and ligament laxity. While these symptom classifications should be obvious signs of a patient in distress, the cause of the problems is not so obvious. Further and unfortunately, there is often no correlation between the hypermobility or subluxation of the vertebrae, clinical signs or symptoms, or neurological signs (such as excessive sweating or inability to sweat and temperature dysregulation or other skin sensations mentioned in this article) or symptoms.”

What we demonstrated in this study is that the cervical neck ligaments are the main stabilizing structures of the cervical facet joints in the cervical spine and have been implicated as a major source of chronic neck pain and in the case of many of the symptoms we mentioned above.

Summary and contact us. Can we help you? How do I know if I’m a good candidate?

We hope you found this article informative and that it helped answer many of the questions you may have surrounding Brachioradial Pruritus – Neuropathic itch. Just like you, we want to make sure you are a good fit for our clinic prior to accepting your case. While our mission is to help as many people with chronic pain as we can, sadly, we cannot accept all cases. We have a multi-step process so our team can really get to know you and your case to ensure that it sounds like you are a good fit for the unique testing and treatments that we offer here.

Contact us about your case

Further reading:

References for this article:

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