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Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Humble Back Scratch - Therapeutic Implications

My wife and I have noted an odd phenomenon as we age. We both, perhaps for different reasons, are prone to getting twitchy legs. In Jan’s case this invariably happens as she is settling to sleep, and it becomes more and more irritating. Getting up and walking around does not seem to help, nor does shifting the position laying in bed. A change in air conditioning (ie cooling things down) makes no difference. No medication seems to make any difference. The twitch is not related to the type of clothing being worn, nor to the presence of sheets, blankets or a doona. It does not appear to be related to what was eaten during the day or for dinner, although we admit the discussion may have been a little superficial. It does not appear to relate to the amount of fluid taken in, or the amount of alcohol consumed (though neither of us drink more than a glass on the couple of times a week we do celebrate something). It just happens. It keeps you awake. It is very irritating.

But we have found a ‘cure’. The humble back scratch. With Jan laying on her tummy, and using gentle scratching, I begin on the shoulder with small circles. I gradually move the circles across the back, and then gradually work down the back to the waist. One of my objectives is to redden to skin right across the back, but not to the level of soreness. Another objective is to get to the point where Jan’s breathing becomes regular and deeper. At that point (maybe 8-10 minutes in), I usually change to a gentle back rub using a flat hand smoothing skin down the back. Jan is usually asleep by this time. Her sleep seems to be deeper, and she often goes through to morning. The leg twitching does not return.

How might this work? At the local level, the skin becomes red, and clearly some chemical reaction is occurring. Antihistaminic, serotenergic?? I don’t know. At a deeper level there may well be a release of serotonin in the brain – but I have to look into this further. A cursory search today produced very little to help.
At a psychological level, Jan may be reminded of being soothed as a child. She does have memories of seeking a back scratch from her father through clothing while watching TV in the evening, and remembers the joy it brought in a physical sense, but also the sense of closeness with a parent. Perhaps all I am doing is recreating those memories, which retain the power to soothe many years later.

Does it work for me? You bet. There is so much truth in the old saying: “You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours.” It is not immediate, given Jan is asleep. However, in the next day or so some reciprocal soothing may occur, leading to a marked reduction in jumping in my Transverse Myelitis legs.

So, I wonder? Would it be of use in soothing partners with Transverse Myelitis, or other spinal conditions that provoke such involuntary movements?

It demands trust. You must have an existing relationship, and be comfortable having an exposed back. It probably is best with a lover, or a best friend or family member.

Give it a go. Tell me how you react. If anyone knows anything about the science behind this, please write and tell me.

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