A 45 year old woman presented to my office complaining of a burning itching rash on both her arms.She had seen several doctors and tried various creams and oral antihistamines without relief. Only applying an ice pack seems to alleviate her symptoms. She is frustrated. On exam she had a few subtle excoriations (scratches) on her forearms, but no other signs of rash or disease.
Brachioradial pruritis is a condition characterized by intractable itching on the top of the forearms (overlying the brachioradialis muscle). Patients often report that the itching actually gets worse with scratching instead of better. It affects mostly middle aged women (which all my patients have been) and presents as a burning and itching sensation on the arms. The symptoms can sometimes be described as tingling or even painful. It can involve one or both arms.
Unfortunately the cause is not well understood. Current thinking is that it is associated with sun damage and/or with cervical nerve root impingement. The sun damage theory is that deep penetrating ultraviolet light (UVA) damages fine pain nerve fibers in the skin of the arms. The cervical spine theory is that impingement (pinching) of the C5 to C8 cervical nerve roots leads to nerve damage. The nerves that emerge from these roots provide sensation to the arms, so damage to them might cause the burning and itching symptoms. Although studies have found that cervical spine disease is more common in patients with brachioradial pruritis, no study has demonstrated that cervical spine disease causes the condition.
Treatments for brachioradial pruritis include:
- Avoidance of sun exposure (probably most important)
- Topical capsaicin (hot pepper oil)
- Cervical spine manipulation
- Anti-inflammatory medications such as naproxen (Alleve®)
- Above all, I think it is helpful just to have a physician who understands that the patient’s symptoms are real and who is willing to try various treatments until a satisfactory remedy is found.