Why do backs itch so much?

January 31, 2021 • 12:00 pm

A while back, someone gave me a Chinese backscratcher: a piece of bamboo with a hand carved at the end with slightly separated fingers.  I use it every couple of days when my back works up a good itch, and believe me, it provides substantial relief!  Here’s what mine looks like:

But when I use it I’ve pondered two questions.

A.) Is the relief you get when scratching your back pleasure, or simply the removal of discomfort? (Or are they equivalent?) This same question applies when you finally make it to the restroom after having to hold your bowels or bladder for a long time. I wonder if philosophers have debated this question.

B.) Why do backs itch so much? I have two theories here, which are mine. The first is that they itch no more than do fronts (i.e., your chest), but we’re unconsciously scratching our fronts all the time, while we can’t reach our backs without a special implement. But I don’t notice myself scratching my chest.

The other is that dirt and oils accumulate on your back more than they do on your front, simply because you can’t reach your back so easily in the bath or shower. I don’t have a sponge on a stick or anything like that, and so am forced to wash my back by reaching around with a piece of soap. I’m never sure that does a great job because it’s hard to reach all the places.  If any accumulated back schmutz makes you itch, this could be an explanation.

Maybe there are other theories as well, but these are the only two I’ve thought of.

66 thoughts on “Why do backs itch so much?

  1. Regarding your first – I have a question: Is the itching sensation pain? I’ve always thought of it more as irritation, or a thing that needs sated, like thirst (or having to relieve one’s self).
    On point B – I would wonder whether it has more to do with lack of moisturization rather than accumulated gunk. It’s easier to lotion up the front than back.

    I did have a colleague who kept a pasta spoon in her desk for back itching, she said it worked marvelously.

  2. In Colorado with such low humidity I blame my back itching on dry skin. If I apply lotion to my back at least every other day the problem disappears. The applicator I use to apply the lotion is very similar to your back scratcher but with a soft pad on one end.

    1. I am from the UK and when I was working in USA and Canada I found that east of the Mississippi I never itched or needed to use body cream but west of the Mississippi I had back itch unless I use body cream every day. All to do with humidity I guess.

  3. I have a double brush on a stick that I use to wash my back each morning (one brush is soft and the other is stiffer). I rarely have an itchy back.

  4. For my case, my explanation is related to option 2. In the winter, I use a moisturizer to keep my skin from itching, but it’s hard to reach my entire back. So I too have a back scratcher that looks like the picture. (Just thinking about this has made my back itchy. Why does thinking about itches make them materialize?)

    1. As I’ve got older I’ve found that certain parts (back, ankles) tend to itch more, particularly in winter months. I’ve put this down to my skin thinning with age.

      What works for me is socks with no strong elastic plus use of moisturiser in the shower. The moisturiser can be applied by a sponge on a stick, or you can get spray moisturisers to blast the bits you cannot reach directly.

  5. I’ve read is that itching is low-level activation of a subgroup of nerve bundles that, when fully activated, produce the sensation of pain. I don’t know if that’s the current story physiologists are telling, but apparently it’s something they believed at one time. Scratching an itch results in a counter-irritant effect; my guess is that the resulting pleasure is just a matter of how awful even mild itching can be—absolutely crazy making.

    As for why backs itch… do they really itch more than any other place? Maybe it’s just that backs are just much more inaccessible than the rest of the body, and the simple, barely (or even un-) conscious actions that we normally use to create that counter-irrittant when a cheek or wrist or something itches are pretty much impossible to carry out without assistance, like a backscratcher (or a convenient rough vertical surface, like the bark of a tree, if all else fails). Perhaps that kind of practical difficulty in getting relief creates the impression that backs are more prone to itch than other parts of the body?

  6. I have exactly that back scratcher as well, and it does the job. My question is, what causes “garden variety” itches in the first place? You can get itchy from external things like mosquito bites, but when you are just sitting in front of the TV doing nothing, what causes your skin to itch when there is no obvious external cause? What is going on that generates the itch that demands a scratch? Is it a surface thing – dead skin needs removal because it is interfering with new skin underneath – or is there something going on under the surface? Is there a traffic jam in a capillary that needs jostling to unclog? Does anyone know?

  7. Don’t have that problem, fortunately. I don’t believe there could be gunk on your back, or anywhere with regular showers and some cleaning agent. A problem might be the opposite: if you shower too hot, use too aggressive substances and rub your back too intensely with the towel afterwards, you can cause irritations of the skin, leading to tingling.

    Another theory: thick hairs could get caught in the mesh of the fabric, and then be moved around, causing irritations of the follicles.

  8. I don’t seem to suffer from IBS (Itchy Back Syndrome). I have considerable experience with itchy legs, however. In my case it seems to be allergic reaction to certain soaps, although why my back escapes the problem is unknown. God’s mysterious ways, I suppose.

  9. The saying ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”, probably goes back at least to our common ancestor with the chimp. Whether the signal is verbal, Frans de Waal could probably tell you.

    I live in a log-construction house, but the logs are ‘manufactured’, i.e. shaved uniform. So all corners have a little overlap, including purely internal ones. So the outside of such an inside corner makes a great self-back-scratch tool. Where the logs are sawed off is not sanded much, so nice and abrasive.

    My house has never asked me to return the favour, though my wife has.

    1. I think you’re under-selling the point. My theory: (C): backs itch more because that gets you to do relationship-building things, specifically grooming each other. Clean skin is nice, but relationships are absolutely vital to human beings.

  10. A pasta/spaghetti fork is equally useful for back-scratching. This utensil is
    available in many places for $6-$8.

    1. If one is going to use a utensil for back scratching, I highly recommend metal telescoping back scratchers with a little scratcher at the end to be superior to anything else. They’re retractable, which has benefits on both ends of the stick. The length on the one I have varies between about 12″ to 17″, not including the scratching tip, and can be easily stored and extended to the desired length; small circumference, too. Barely weighs anything. I found it in a hardware or drug store, can’t recall which; but they must be on Amazon.

  11. I think an itchy back is just a minor inconvenience to bring to your attention the great pleasure that will ensue when you deal with it.

    1. Yes, indeed. Mine is an addiction that I blame on my grandmother. When I was a tad, I would lay across her lap for long periods of time as she gently scratched my back.

  12. Question A: I think the removal of pain/discomfort is often not just relief but is a “positive” pleasure response. This would encourage you to remove the noxious stimulus all the more if it were to repeat itself.
    A painful stimulus is likely to unduce endorphines and likely do something to serotonine and dopamine as well.
    In my pharmacology classes in the 1970’s the subject did come up as a philosophical question: powerful pain killers like heroine also cause powerful euphoria which can be addictive. The question was posed as to whether a drug could be developed which could cause pain relief without addictive euphoria.
    I think that the answer so far is no, very likely because the neural pathways are the shared to some degree, pain and pleasure being on the same continuum.
    Heroine was first introduced as a safer alternative to morphine, when in fact it is far more addictive.

  13. The other African great aoes spend a good deal of time grooming one another’s backs, but in humans one rarely sees thus sort of behavior, say, at the office.

  14. The skin docs call it notalgia paresthetica. Sort of like tinnitus, nobody seems to really know what causes it nor does anyone know how to get rid of it satisfactorily. Both conditions can diminish one’s quality of life.

  15. For me as an old man it is definitely a moisturizing problem. I bought a tool with a long handle and a disk covered with small rotating spheres at the end. I cover those spheres with a moisturizing lotion and treat my back after showering.

  16. Just reading these comments makes me all ootchy!

    But I looked up the issue on WebMD. They mention that this sensation, which induces one to scratch, could be an adaptation to detect and remove external parasites.

    If I keep reading the article in WebMD no doubt it will segue into how itching could be a sign of cancer. So I’ll stop reading now.

    1. I remember a similar saying, something like: “Today I will make my dog happy: first I will beat him, then I will stop”

  17. I’m partial to the equilibrium theory of pleasure and pain. The body seeks homeostasis of course. If you eat cake you sense pleasure for only so long, until you become uncomfortably full. You stop eating to return to the mean. Returning to the mean is in itself pleasurable. We therefore oscillate between pleasure and pain throughout our lives. The things we seek, money, love, fame, etc. do not retain their luster for long. Tears and suffering also pass with time. On balance, we have only, in the end, a balance.

  18. Actually, I believe the back’s itch … … to be pain.

    Long and long ago within my youth and as a BSN – student
    at Cornell University’s New York ( City ) Hospital School of Nursing,
    I was assigned, and for weeks’ time each, took care at different, separate times two patients, both under the age of 40, who, both paralyzed from the neck down, had had Guillain – Barré syndrome. The very early 1970s.

    Either of their not being able to render a n y itch scratched was,
    they assured me, p u r e torture. My relieving their pains from time to time has not resulted, since, in my receiving for A Thing Else that
    I have e v e r done for A N Y One … … such amount and verbal display / array of gratitude.

    Of all of my passel of assigned patients and for .t h i s. of their pains,
    I have always, always remembered these two particular people, both men. I shall never want to find myself located within such … …
    this same deal. Thus, I have such a ONE as Dr Coyne’s within every, single room. ¡ y e a, R E L I E F ! No need to wander elsewhere
    w h e n … … its need soooo arises !

    Blue

    1. I can definitely relate. I don’t have a particular itchy back problem, but on occasion that I have had an itchy spell and my wife has used her finger nails to gently scratch my back? At times the initial sensation has been so strong, I swear I have nearly lost consciousness.

  19. If I recall rightly, Epicurus defined pleasure as the avoidance of discomfort. He also knew the earth travels around the sun, that the moon travels around the earth, and, according to a denunciation of him by the early Christian apologist Lactantius, had a notion of evolution (though it isn’t clear that he had the idea of natural selection). Most of his writings were destroyed by the church; only a few remain, and most of what we know of Epicurus’ thought comes from Lucretius’ On The Nature of Things.

    Respecting pain/pleasure specifically, the notion of an Epicurean as one who over-indulges in rich food, is self-indulgent, etc., is a Christian slander of him.

  20. Buy a back brush and use it in the shower from time to time. Then put lotion on the back of the brush and apply it to your back. Lastly, use a bath towel to distribute the lotion on your back.

  21. “…you can’t reach your back so easily in the bath or shower”

    Just bathe or shower with someone you are romantically attracted to. Problem solved.

  22. In case you are having trouble putting 2 and 2 together. As you get older you have more skin problems. That is why they made dermatologist. Winter time is always the bad time and sometimes the answer is moving to a tropical climate, like Hawaii.

  23. It’s physics. Backs itch more because of entropy. Flailing around trying to hit that itchy spot on your back leads to greater overall disorder.

  24. Loofah! Get a loofah with string loops at each end. One in each hand and then over the back….ah….bliss . Amazon
    Back Scrubber for Shower Back Washer for Shower, Body Scrubbers For Use In Shower to Exfoliate and Cleanse Skin

    $9.99$9.99
    Can send a photo from Amazon to your E mail if wanted

  25. I’m reminded of one “philosophy” book that I read (bonus points if you can identify it), that mentioned several times that “a removal of a punishment is not a reward”.

    There is also a spectrum to itching. You can trigger an itch by flicking one hair on your hand or arm a few times. I suspect that is an evolutionary response to parasites, and is just an annoyance, rather than painful. Being scratched on the other hand can be pleasurable. Other itches, eg. mosquitoes, could be classified as pain. I’ve occasionally had one in the sole of my foot that can be so painful I need to stomp on it, or press my foot against a hard object for relief. If anyone knows the cause, and it is something to be concerned about, let me know.

  26. Hair. I always know when I have a loose hair between my back & my shirt. I’ve been known to pull my shirt over my head (in a private location of course) to look over the back/inside of my shirt. Most often when my back is itchy, I find a long hair stuck to my shirt or poking through from the outside. Drives me bonkers!

  27. Interesting question. Is relief from itch, sneezing or emptying a full bladder relief from discomfort or positive pleasure such as orgasm? I tend to the former, but would not put more than one cent on it.
    As Mark mentioned above, getting rid of parasites is certainly playing a role in the relief scratching brings. That might point to a positive pleasure sensation from an evolutionary POV.
    However, not always. Scratching a mosquito bite may give some very short term relief, but it also provokes mastcells to release their contents, aggravating the itch.
    I have the same kind of bamboo back scratcher, but this raises question C) Why can you never find your back scratcher when your back really itches?

  28. The dermis is much thicker on your dorsal surface compared to your ventral, especially at the neck. The answer may have something to do with evolution.

  29. I found out that back itching can sometimes be caused by disturbance of the thoracic vertebrae: T2-T6. Nerve pinching in this area can cause painful or itchy sensations in the back (something similar to sciatica provoked by problems with the lumbar vertebrae or hand problems provoked by the cervical vertebrae).
    Apparently shingles can also cause skin itching in the back: pointing to a viral origin (postherpetic neuralgia) but sometimes set off by stress etc.

  30. It’s pleasure caused by evolved reward response for disturbing invasive insects (usually) who would otherwise make a meal of you or use you for reproductive purposes. Modern day causes of itching include skin allergies to bamboo (see backscratcher). 😉

  31. Each of your shoulder blades has a nerve running over it, a nerve that can get irritated and cause itching in a particular area of your back, often just on one side but sometimes both. The problem can be chronic.

  32. I sympathize with my fellow itchy-backers. No one mentioned ‘heat’. That does it for me, leaning back in a cushy chair for a long time till I get warm. (Mesh back office chairs provide better aeration.) My heat rash or psoriasis can flare up then. I’m also sensitive to laundry detergent and that plays into it too. Humans have some skin mites too, and if there’s an infestation of them, it can only be very unpleasant.

    If there’s a visual stimulant such as someone being bitten by ants, then my head might itch in a nervous response.

  33. If you don’t scratch it, it doesn’t itch.

    Don’t know if that thought is upthread, but it’s how I understand a lot of itchy ponderances.

  34. From the comments above, and my own experience, I think we agree itchiness is a consequence of dry, not greasy skin. If this is the case, I think the perceived difference in itchiness between chest and back is real. Clothing rubs on our back all day long, drying it. This does not happen with the same intensity on the chest because our arms tend to move from their neutral position on the sides of the body towards the front to perform all sorts of tasks during the day, e.g., typing at the computer all day long. We rarely move our arms backwards in a way and with a frequency that would produce a similar rubbing on the chest.

  35. An easy way to wash your back is with a large washcloth. The cloth should measure a generous 14″ by 14″. Soap up the cloth on one side and hold it by a single corner. Slap it over your shoulder and grab the corner pointing down with your other hand and proceed to tug at the cloth with alternating hands as you move over half your back. Rotate the process for the other side.

    1. Ouch, my two “frozen shoulders” are aching just thinking of that procedure. I can’t touch either shoulder with the opposite hand.

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