Severe Atopic Dermatitis Often Puts a Dent in Quality of Life

Doug Brunk

March 04, 2021

In his role as head of the division of pediatric behavioral health at National Jewish Health, Denver, Bruce G. Bender, PhD, helps children and adults navigate the adverse effects of severe atopic dermatitis (AD) on their quality of life.

Dr Bruce Bender

"There have been many surveys of adults with AD who report impairment of their sleep, reduced activity level, increased work absence, financial burden, emotional distress, and social avoidance," he said at the Revolutionizing Atopic Dermatitis virtual symposium. "Similarly, children with AD or their parents report emotional distress, reduced activity, and increased school absence, social avoidance, and sleep disturbance. Families report financial burdens, conflict, particularly among the adults, social avoidance, sleep disturbance in the parents, and reduction of well-being in the siblings."

Getting adequate sleep is especially challenging for patients with AD, and loss of sleep can have serious daytime consequences. In an effort to objectively measure sleep change in this population, Bender and colleagues recruited 14 adults with AD and 14 healthy controls who wore an ActiGraph for 1 week and completed questionnaires about sleep, itch, and quality of life. Patients with AD were awake almost twice as many minutes each night as the healthy controls (a mean of 57.3 vs. 32.3 minutes, respectively; = .0480). Consequently, their sleep efficiency was significantly reduced based on the Pittsburgh sleep quality index (a mean of 90.6 vs. 95; = .0305).

In another study, Bender and colleagues enrolled 20 adults with AD who underwent 2 nights of polysomnography and actigraphy. The lab was set up to measure a scratching event, which was recorded when a burst of electromyographic activity of at least 3 seconds was accompanied by a visible scratching motion. "We learned that sleep efficiency as measured by both PSG and actigraphy correlated with total body surface area and scratching index," he said. "As we might assume, the more skin involved, the more patients scratch, the less well they sleep."

Behavioral, Neurocognitive Effects

In a separate study of AD, sleep, and behavior, the researchers studied 1,041 children with asthma who were enrolled in the Childhood Asthma Management Program at eight North American sites. They used baseline parent ratings on standardized sleep and behavior rating scales and found that increased awakenings were associated with increased school absence and daytime behavior problems. "So, not only do children with AD sleep less well, but this shows up to impair their functioning during the day," said Bender, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado, Denver.

In a report from Australia, researchers set out to explore the association between sleep and neurocognitive function in 21 children with eczema and 20 healthy controls. Participants underwent cognitive testing and polysomnography. The authors found that the children with eczema demonstrated lower test scores. Reduced scores were correlated with parental reports of sleep problems but not polysomnography.

In a much larger study funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, investigators analyzed data on 354,416 children and 34,613 adults from 19 U.S. population surveys including the National Health Interview Survey 1997-2013 and the National Survey of Children's Health 2003/4 and 2007/8. They found that AD was associated with ADHD in children (adjusted odds ratio, 1.14) and adults (aOR, 1.61). Higher odds of ADHD were found in children who had significant sleep disturbance (aOR, 16.83) and other allergic disease and asthma (aOR, 1.61).

"All of these findings show that AD can impact quality of life, especially sleep, with the result of poorer daytime functioning," Bender said. "But those studies don't answer this question: Are patients with AD at increased risk for psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety?"

Impact on Depression, Anxiety

Two systematic reviews on the topic suggest that patients with AD are twice as likely to experience depression. One was published in 2018 and the other in 2019. The 2018 review reported a little more than a twofold increase (OR, 2.19), the 2019 review a little bit less (OR, 1.71).

"At the more severe end of the depression continuum, we sometimes see suicidal ideation and suicide attempts," Bender said. "A number of studies have asked whether these are increased in patients with AD. Quite a few studies collectively show an increased incidence of suicidal ideation. The question of suicide attempts is reflected in fewer studies. And while the result is small, it is significant. There is a significant increase reported of suicide attempts in AD patients."

The 2018 review also found an increased incidence of anxiety in AD patients: a little more than twofold in adults (OR, 2.19) and a little less than twofold in children (OR, 1.81).

"It's a two-way relationship between AD and psychological factors," Bender said. "We generally think about AD – the stress that it brings, the burden that it puts on children, adults, and families. But it can work the other way around," he said, referring to patients who have psychological problems, experience a great deal of stress, have trouble being adherent to their treatment regimen, and find it difficult to resist scratching. "The behavioral/psychological characteristics of the patient also drive the AD. It is well established that acute and chronic stress can result in a worsening of skin conditions in AD patients."

Behavioral health interventions that have been described in the literature include cognitive therapy, stress management, biofeedback, hypnotherapy, relaxation training, mindfulness, habit reversal, and patient education — some of which have been tested in randomized trials. "All of them report a decrease in scratching as a consequence of the behavioral intervention," Bender said.

"Other studies have been reported that look at the impact of behavioral interventions on the severity of the skin condition. Most report an improvement in the skin condition from these behavioral interventions but it's not a perfect literature." Critiques of these studies include the fact that there is often not enough detail about the intervention or the framework for the intervention that would allow a clinician to test an intervention in another study or actually pull that intervention into clinical practice (Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Jan 7;2014[1]:CD004054), (Int Arch Allergy Immunol.2007;144[1]:1-9).

"Some of the studies lack rigorous designs, some have sampling bias, and some have inadequate outcome measurements," he said. "We really need additional, high-quality studies to look at what is helpful for patients with AD."

Bender reported having no financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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