The basic problem with treating chronic itch is that there is no cure for most conditions, including eczema. But several approaches reduce the severity by a significant amount. Some of these approaches are “Western” medicine, which I take to mean they are based on refined drugs manufactured by a pharma company. Some are “alternative,” which includes acupuncture, probiotics, “Chinese medicine” (that is, herbs that probably contain active ingredients that have not been isolated and refined into “Western” drugs), and others. Gil Yosipovitch, a world expert on itch, combines both in his approach, without overt prejudice--as long as the alternative component is not patently ridiculous.
Psychology plays a large part in Y’s method. “There are a lot of issues involved in the suffering that are beyond dermatology,” he says. “We use a lot of meds that come from psychology.”
He works with an acupuncturist. He collaborates with a practitioner of healing touch.
Here’s an aside: my own mother practices healing touch, and in past years I have mocked her for it, because there is no way that waving your hands over someone’s body is going to cause physiological changes through the medium of some imaginary “energy field” that has no connection with the laws of physics. But here’s the rub: if the patient believes there is such a connection, then I acknowledge that it is possible that undergoing healing touch could relax the patient and, via psychological paths, relieve itch or pain. Won’t work for me, though; I don’t believe in it!
“I’m a physician--I’m OK with the placebo effect,” Y says. Y doesn’t care, as long as the patient feels better. He found out that his acupuncturist has expertise in itch, and his patients who undergo acupuncture see their symptoms relieved by 20-30%. That’s better than he sees with most drugs. “Why should I prescribe drugs with side effects?” he asks. “We don’t know everything.” One of his patients was taking “enough meds for an elephant,” but they didn’t do much, and it was healing touch that appeared to improve his condition.
This holds, he says, only for chronic itch. Acute itch, that is caused by something like poison ivy or insect bite, likely has a well-defined treatment. And in any case, why worry about acute itch? It will go away. (That’s my opinion, not his.)
Probiotics: he’s not super-keen on them, but he sees a lot of people asking about them. “We have to address the issue,” he says. Again, if it works, it works, so why not try eating yogurt if it seems like a good idea.
But sometimes he sees ads for less legitimate treatments such as garlic pills or suppositories. “That’s not what I want my patients to try,” he says.
I’m confused. It seems hard to draw any sort of boundary between valid and invalid therapies, if you’re OK with healing touch. Perhaps with healing touch, or yoga, if you are “treated” or practice it regularly, there is a rhythmic relaxation effect, whereas garlic pills or their ilk are unlikely to produce anything but a weak, transitory placebo effect. However, Y knows what he sees, and he sees that healing touch has a practical, beneficial outcome.
Also, it could be that genuine caring human contact reduces anxiety. A theory occurs to me: maybe the apparent increase in incidence of eczema in developed countries is partly related to social alienation in modern life. We spend so much time dealing with machines instead of people, and so much time with strangers instead of friends and family. Can we improve our eczema symptoms by spending more time with family?
I doubt it, unfortunately. Ask any mother of a young child with eczema. It’s not that the mother doesn’t care, or isn’t doing her best to try to calm her child.
In this blog I intend mostly to pursue Western therapy as a means of treating eczema or relieving itch. I’m open-minded, though, and I hope not to bad-mouth any therapies without good reason. So, within reason, I’ll try anything myself and see if it works. That includes vitamin D. In the near future I will try a course of 4000 IU vitamin D per day, and we’ll see what happens.
With itch medicine, Y says, “large studies are a problem” because itch has so many potential causes and pathways that it’s hard to find a large identical test population. “You can’t give just one antibody for itch. That’s a simplistic approach.” And so personalized medicine, a customized approach for each of us, is our future. The responsibility lies with us. But we already knew that.