Public Release:  Research led by Temple's chair of dermatology: Pain and itch may be signs of skin cancer

Temple University Health System

(Philadelphia, PA) - Asking patients if a suspicious skin lesion is painful or itchy may help doctors decide whether the spot is likely to be cancerous, according to a new study headed by Gil Yosipovitch, MD, Chairman of the Department of Dermatology at Temple University School of Medicine.

The study, published online by JAMA Dermatology on July 23, 2014, found that nearly 36. 9 percent of skin cancer lesions are accompanied by itching, while 28.2 percent involve pain. Non-melanoma skin cancers -- specifically, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma -- are more likely than melanoma to involve itch or pain, the study found.

"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," concluded the study.

Dr. Yosipovitch, Director of the Temple Itch Center, said the findings are important because skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. More than 3.5 million non-melanoma skin cancers are diagnosed in two million people annually in this country.

"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.

The study involved 268 patients who had 339 laboratory-confirmed skin cancer lesions at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center from July 2010 to March 2011.

After undergoing a skin biopsy, the patients were asked to complete a numerical ranking scale to quantify the intensity of itch and pain associated with their skin lesion. The scale, called a visual analog scale, or VAS, went from zero (no sensation) to 10 (the most intense sensation imaginable).

When the researchers compared the patients' responses to their biopsy results, they found that:

  • The prevalence of itch was greatest in squamous cell carcinoma (46.6 percent), followed by basal cell carcinoma (31.9 percent) and melanoma (14.8 percent).
  • Pain prevalence was greatest in squamous cell carcinoma (42.5 percent), followed by basal cell carcinoma (19.9 percent) and melanoma (3.7 percent).
  • Pain and itch often went hand in hand: 45.6 percent of lesions associated with itch also had pain; and 60 percent of painful lesions also involved itch.
  • The most painful lesions tended to be those with the greatest depth (except for melanoma lesions, which did not correlate with pain). Pain and itch was also associated with lesions that were larger in diameter. Cancers that were ulcerated (sores or open wounds) tended to be associated with pain but not with itch.
  • Pain and/or itch were more likely to be present when the laboratory analysis of the skin lesion sample suggested a marked or moderate degree of inflammation as compared to mild or no inflammation.

Dr. Yosipovitch said he hopes the study findings will prompt dermatologists to incorporate the use of a ranking scale for pain and itch when evaluating patients with suspicious skin lesions.

This could increase the detection of skin lesions that are cancerous," he said.


Dr. Yosipovitch is an internationally-recognized dermatologist and a leading authority on itch, a bothersome and sometimes even disabling sensation that is caused by skin disorders, kidney disease, diabetes, liver disease, nerve damage and other conditions.

Temple's Itch Center is dedicated to laboratory and clinical research and treatment of chronic itch.

About Temple Health

Temple Health refers to the health, education and research activities carried out by the affiliates of Temple University Health System and by Temple University School of Medicine. Temple University Health System (TUHS) is a $1.4 billion academic health system dedicated to providing access to quality patient care and supporting excellence in medical education and research. The Health System consists of Temple University Hospital (TUH), ranked among the "Best Hospitals" in the region by U.S. News & World Report; TUH-Episcopal Campus; TUH-Northeastern Campus; Fox Chase Cancer Center, an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center; Jeanes Hospital, a community-based hospital offering medical, surgical and emergency services; Temple Transport Team, a ground and air-ambulance company; and Temple Physicians, Inc., a network of community-based specialty and primary-care physician practices. TUHS is affiliated with Temple University School of Medicine.

Temple University School of Medicine (TUSM), established in 1901, is one of the nation's leading medical schools. Each year, the School of Medicine educates approximately 840 medical students and 140 graduate students. Based on its level of funding from the National Institutes of Health, Temple University School of Medicine is the second-highest ranked medical school in Philadelphia and the third-highest in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. According to U.S. News & World Report, TUSM is among the top 10 most applied-to medical schools in the nation.

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