The itching, dryness and discoloration of neurodermatitis rarely clears up without medical treatment. This non-life-threatening, but annoying, skin condition is estimated to happen in about 12% of the population in the US.
Neurodermatitis is a non-life-threatening skin condition involving itching and scratching, usually on just one or two patches of skin. It is also called lichen simplex chronicus.
The itch can occur anywhere on the body but is most commonly found on the arms, shoulders, elbows, legs, ankles, wrists, hands, back of the neck or scalp. The anal and genital areas and the face might also itch. The itching can be intense, causing frequent scratching, or it might come and go. It is most active when the patient is relaxing or trying to sleep. In some cases, the patient wakes up scratching or rubbing the affected area.
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The itchy patches measure between 3 centimeters by 6 centimeters and 6 centimeters by 10 centimeters. The patches can look:
Scratching can irritate nerve endings in the skin and worsen the itching, leading to more scratching. The condition can become chronic as the itch-scratch cycle continues.
It is estimated that neurodermatitis occurs in about 12% of the population. Research has shown that people between 30 years old and 50 years old are more likely to contract the condition. Women are more likely than men to suffer from neurodermatitis at a ratio of 2:1. Those with anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders and family members with histories of other skin diseases, including eczema and contact dermatitis, are more likely to develop neurodermatitis.
Some recent studies have suggested that those with certain personality traits – including poor social skills, lack of flexibility, tendency toward pain avoidance, dependency on other people, people-pleasing and dutifulness – are more likely to have neurodermatitis. However, other studies have found no connection between personality and the condition.
The underlying cause of neurodermatitis is unknown. However, it has been observed that the itch can start during times of extreme stress, anxiety, emotional trauma or depression. The itching sometimes continues even after the mental stress eases or stops.
Other possible neurodermatitis triggers include:
In addition to itching, scratching and dry, discolored patches of skin, symptoms of neurodermatitis can include:
A dermatologist will exam the itchy area, possibly with a scope. The doctor will first rule out other skin conditions, like eczema and psoriasis. The doctor might take a complete medical history and then ask some questions, such as:
Neurodermatitis rarely heals without treatment. A dermatologist will write a treatment plan that is unique for each patient. The main goal is to stop the itching and scratching. Treatments can include medications like:
Your doctor might also suggest:
If none of these treatments are effective, nontraditional treatments include:
If scratching due to neurodermitis has caused a wound, the doctor may wrap a dressing over the area.
Another potential treatment is negative-pressure wound therapy, which involves vacuuming fluid out of the wound and increasing blood flow there.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy confines the patient in an oxygen chamber to inhale pure oxygen, which enhances the body’s ability to heal itself. Surgery on the wound is another option.
If you have neurodermatitis, you should follow the treatment plan from your doctor and try to keep calm so anxiety and stress don't trigger a flareup. Also, keep these points in mind:
With the right treatment plan, neurodermatitis can heal completely. However, the doctor and patient may have to adjust the plan or try different plans. Sticking with the plan is vital, especially if neurodermatitis is on the genitals, where cases of the condition are most stubborn.
Unfortunately, neurodermatitis can return if activated by one of the triggers. Then, the patient must return for treatment. In some cases, a doctor will continue treatment on a patient who has healed to prevent the condition from returning.
Sometimes, neurodermatitis can develop into skin cancers like squamous-cell or verrucous carcinoma. This is perhaps due to continuous scratching and rubbing, which can activate chemicals that cause inflammation, which in turn can transform skin cells to cancerous cells.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/10/2019.
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