Why do elbows itch?

It's fun to rest them on tabletops, less fun to scratch them.
© Jack Hollingsworth/Corbis

Itches are always annoying, but the most frustrating ones are those in difficult-to-scratch areas. Take the elbows, for instance: They're bony, without a lot of flesh to dig into. So it seems particularly cruel that they're a prime location for certain itchy conditions, like psoriasis.

This chronic autoimmune disease causes rapid turnover of skin cells. As a result, dry patches and itchy scales show up on the skin. The type of psoriasis most likely to affect the elbows is plaque psoriasis. It can also appear on the knees, lower back and scalp.


There are a variety of methods to treat psoriasis, including medication and light therapy. What's not recommended, however, is scratching the areas where you experience an outbreak. This will cause the patches and scales to thicken, causing more itchiness in a never-ending cycle. But if your elbows itch, that doesn't necessarily mean you have psoriasis. If you don't see raised red patches (called plaques) or silvery scales, chances are your elbows are irritated for a different reason.

Another possible cause of itchiness is atopic dermatitis (AD). This bothersome condition, which causes very dry skin around the elbows, knees, neck and face, can lead to incessant scratching. Henry Wager Halleck, a Union general during the Civil War, is believed by modern scholars to have had AD because he was constantly scratching his elbows [source: Cropley]. In fact, the habit was so excessive that the Secretary of Navy who served with the general complained about it in his published diary.

Of course, you don't have to end up like Gen. Halleck. To avoid having your scratchy elbows scrutinized by historians, be sure to contact a doctor about any itching that's severe, ongoing or accompanied by other symptoms.

Click the next page to learn more about psoriasis, AD and all things itchy.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Atopic dermatitis: Signs and symptoms." 2014. (Aug. 10, 2014) http://www.aad.org/dermatology-a-to-z/diseases-and-treatments/a---d/atopic-dermatitis/signs-symptoms
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Psoriasis: Signs and symptoms." 2014. (Aug. 10, 2014) http://www.aad.org/dermatology-a-to-z/diseases-and-treatments/m---p/psoriasis/signs-symptoms
  • Cropley, TG. "General Halleck's itchy elbows." The Journal of Civil War Medicine." 2007. (Aug. 10, 2014) http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/21894643
  • Medline Plus. "Itching." June 24, 2014. (Aug. 10, 2014) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/itching.html
  • Medline Plus. "Psoriasis." July 10, 2014. (Aug. 10, 2014) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/psoriasis.html
  • Merck Manuals. "Itching." October 2012. (Aug. 10, 2014) http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/skin_disorders/itching_and_dermatitis/itching.html