Pain and Itch May Indicate Skin Cancer

Basal and squamous cell carcinomas associated with heightened pain and itch in new study

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Dermatologists use a number of observational and laboratory methods to evaluate suspicious skin marks when looking for cancer. But a new study suggests simply asking a patient to evaluate itchiness or pain can help doctors make informed decisions.

Researchers recently found that varying levels of itch and pain were associated with many skin cancer cases examined.

"Consult a dermatologist about reducing your risk of skin cancer."

The study was conducted by Gil Yosipovitch, MD, chairman of the Department of Dermatology at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, and colleagues.

The study included 268 patients diagnosed with skin cancer lesions between July 2010 and March 2011.

The patients were asked to use a 10-point scale to rate the level of itch and pain associated with a particular lesion. On the 10-point scale, zero represented no sensation while 10 represented the most intense sensation imaginable.

Dr. Yosipovitch and team found that 36.9 percent of skin cancer lesions studied were accompanied by itching and 28.2 percent came with reported pain.

Specifically, the study found that non-melanoma skin cancers like basal and squamous cell carcinomas were more likely than melanoma to involve itching or pain.

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer and is often associated with irregular moles. Basal cell carcinoma refers to a cancer in the lower epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, while squamous cell carcinoma occurs in the upper epidermis.

According to the study results, itching was greatest in squamous cell carcinoma (46.6 percent of lesions studied), followed by basal cell carcinoma (31.9 percent) and melanoma (14.8 percent).

Pain was greatest in squamous cell carcinoma (42.5 percent), followed by basal cell carcinoma (19.9 percent) and melanoma (3.7 percent), the researchers reported.

"Patients sometimes have multiple lesions that are suspicious looking, and those that are itchy or painful should raise high concerns for non-melanoma skin cancers," Dr. Yosipovitch said in a prepared statement.

The study findings could be a useful tool for doctors, the researchers concluded.

“The study highlights the importance of a simple bedside evaluation for the presence and intensity of pain or itch as an easily implementable tool for clinicians in evaluating suspicious skin lesions,” the study authors reported.

This study was published July 23 in the online edition of JAMA Dermatology.

Support came from the Wake Forest Comprehensive Cancer Center. The study authors did not disclose any conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
July 22, 2014
Last Updated:
July 24, 2014