Brachioradial pruritus

Author: Dr Amanda Oakley, Department of Dermatology, Waikato Hospital, Hamilton, New Zealand, 2002.


Brachioradial pruritus — codes and concepts
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What is brachioradial pruritus?

Brachioradial pruritus describes itch, burning, stinging, tingling and changed sensation on either or both arms.

What is the cause of brachioradial pruritus?

Brachioradial pruritus is due to a neuropathy of the small C fibre nerves. As brachioradial pruritus appears to be more often reported in sunny climates than in cooler areas, it has been suggested that long term sun exposure may cause damage to the nerve fibres within the skin.

In many cases, brachioradial pruritus is clearly due to nerve damage or radiculopathy in the cervical spine (neck), when it may be due to:

  • Cervical vertebral osteoarthritis
  • Cervical rib
  • Cervical spinal tumour
  • Nerve compression or myelopathy for any other reason

Prolonged compression of spinal itch-transmitting neurones can activate central sensitisation processes, affecting the A fibres. These convey light touch and pinprick symptoms, and stimulation can result in sensitive or painful skin with an exaggerated response to light touch or pinprick (hyperaesthesia, hyperalgesia).

When compressed nerves atrophy (shrink), C fibres in the skin can proliferate.

A localised neuropathic itch may also expand to involve other dermatomes.

What are the clinical features of brachioradial pruritus?

The most commonly affected area is the mid-arm, but forearms and upper arms can also be affected. People often apply ice packs to the affected areas in an attempt to gain relief from the unpleasant symptoms.

The affected skin may appear entirely normal. Visible changes may arise from rubbing and scratching the affected area. These include purpura and ecchymoses (bruises), hyperpigmentation (brown marks), hypopigmentation (white marks), lichen simplex (a type of eczema), prurigo and scarring. There may be changed sensation when this is tested for with pinprick, cotton wool or heat and cold. Reduced or absent sweating may be noted in the affected area.

Brachioradial pruritus occasionally expands to involve the lower legs or generalises to other sites.

What is the treatment of brachioradial pruritus?

Treatment is not always successful. Effective measures include the following:

  • Cooling lotions as required (camphor and menthol)
  • Physiotherapy and neck exercises
  • Cervical spine manipulation by an appropriately qualified health professional
  • Electrical cutaneous nerve field stimulation
  • Capsaicin cream – this depletes nerve endings of their chemical transmitters
  • Local anaesthetic creams
  • Amitriptyline or other oral tricyclic antidepressant medication at night
  • An anticonvulsant agent such as gabapentin and pregabalin.
  • Topical ketamine has been reported to provide rapid relief.

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References

  • Kwatra SG, Stander S, Bernhard JD, Weisshaar E, Yosipovitch G. Brachioradial pruritus: a trigger for generalization of itch. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2013 May;68(5):870-3. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2012.11.026. Epub 2013 Jan 29. PubMed PMID: 23374230.
  • Poterucha TJ, Murphy SL, Davis MD, Sandroni P, Rho RH, Warndahl RA, Weiss WT. Topical amitriptyline-ketamine for the treatment of brachioradial pruritus. JAMA Dermatol. 2013 Feb;149(2):148-50. doi: 10.1001/2013.jamadermatol.646. PubMed PMID: 23426470.
  • Flores S, Davis MD, Pittelkow MR, Sandroni P, Weaver AL, Fealey RD. Abnormal sweating patterns associated with itching, burning and tingling of the skin indicate possible underlying small-fibre neuropathy. Br J Dermatol. 2015 Feb;172(2):412-8. doi: 10.1111/bjd.13576. Epub 2015 Jan 18. PubMed PMID: 25597261.

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