When people think of sensitive skin, they often imagine someone whose face is prone to redness from beauty products. This is not that type of skin sensitivity. When skin is sensitive to touch but no rash is involved, it falls under a category called “allodynia.”
Allodynia is when the skin hurts to touch in response to things that shouldn’t normally cause a pain response; the usual examples are clothing or temperature changes.
However, allodynia is a symptom rather than a unique condition so the name on its own doesn’t answer what causes your skin to hurt. There are several possible culprits behind why your skin hurts and understanding them will be useful for ultimately solving this mystery.
Reasons Why Your Skin Is Sensitive to Touch
Tanning and sunbathing are fine only up to a point before they start causing unwanted effects. Overexposure results in first-to-second-degree burns across the affected part of your body, which then causes tender skin or skin that is sore to the touch. Other symptoms include swelling, the area feeling hot to the touch, painful skin, blistering, and redness.
Any area of skin can be sunburned, so whether it hurts to touch your forearm skin, an earlobe, or your face and torso all depends on your personal activity.
Neuropathy is the catch-all term for when there is something wrong with one or more of your nerves. In some neuropathies, allodynia can happen as the skin becomes more sensitive to touch and other stimuli. Neuropathy is most commonly seen in the limbs (peripheral neuropathy) so if this is the cause, you may experience touch-sensitive skin on your arms and legs more than elsewhere on the body.
The most common cause of chronic peripheral neuropathy is diabetes, but nerve damage can arise from vitamin B12 deficiency, insecticide exposure, lymphomas or myelomas, chronic alcohol abuse, kidney or liver disease, hereditary diseases, arthritis, injury, or certain chemotherapy or HIV drugs. Having said that, about 30% of all neuropathies lack any identifiable cause.
In people who have previously had the chicken pox, the virus can sometimes reappear years later as shingles. This new illness causes bouts of pain, burning, numbness, or tingling along the skin, an increased sensitivity to touch, a red rash that appears after the onset of the pain, and blisters that eventually burst and crust over.
Shingles tends to affect only one side or area of your body so you may find that your skin is sensitive to touch on, say, your back but not your front, or only on your left side.
Allodynia is a possible symptom of a migraine attack, however, the exact form of allodynia experienced can vary from person to person. In some, the skin pain only happens in response to both hot and cold temperatures (thermal allodynia) or only one of the two. In others, the pain only happens if the skin is subject to some sort of extra pressure or pull such as from combing your hair or shaving (dynamic allodynia).
The most unfortunate form is when the migraine causes pain at even light touches, such as from clothing, jewelry, or simply resting your head on a pillow (tactile or static allodynia).
5. Midbrain Issues
The midbrain is responsible for evaluating various stimuli and helps dictate your body’s response. If there is a defect or damage in this region, allodynia can arise through exaggerated pain reactions to light pressure or touch. This is slightly different from the other forms of skin sensitivity described here since there’s nothing wrong with the skin or nerves; the brain is receiving the right information, but it isn’t interpreting it correctly.
Fibromyalgia is a widespread musculoskeletal pain disorder with no known cause. It’s also a diagnosis of exclusion—widespread pain (both sides of body and above and below the waist) must persist for at least three months and not have any other identifiable cause.
Although there isn’t a specific known cause, one train of thought is that a repeated stimulus, such as one from an illness or injury, can cause abnormal brain changes which make the body’s pain receptors extra sensitive and more liable to overreact. Since fibromyalgia tends to run in families, a genetic element is also suspected.
Treating Skin Sensitivity
In the case of sunburn, the damage to your skin has already been done and there isn’t much recourse available except to wait a few days for the skin to start peeling off. To manage the pain and swelling, corticosteroids, pain relievers, ice packs, and pressure may help.
If the sunburn is accompanied by high fever, extreme pain, confusion, chills, headache, or nausea, if pus or red streaks appear from an open blister, or the pain and swelling increase, inform your doctor.
Depending on the cause, neuropathy can be cured if addressed promptly enough. Getting back on top of diabetes management, adding more vitamin B12, stopping toxin exposure, or resolving the kidney or liver dysfunction can allow the nerve damage to heal, for instance.
However, some forms of neuropathy are permanent and require treatment in the form of pain medication or soothing creams and patches, depending on the area affected. Cold packs may also help, though in some cases they may aggravate symptoms.
Like the chicken pox, shingles does not have a specific cure. Antiviral medications can help hasten recovery and reduce the likelihood of complications, and the skin pain can be treated with the pain reliever of your choice.
Much like the chicken pox, shingles can cause intense itching, so treatments such as calamine lotion or oatmeal baths are also recommended.
There is no specific treatment for migraine-induced allodynia, so your normal migraine medication or home treatment is the primary option. It’s worth noting that some types of allodynia are more responsive to migraine medication that others, some might be less effective, and at least one (Ketorolac) is best used during an allodynia appearance.
Speak to your doctor about the properties of your specific migraine medication and how it should be taken to best manage allodynia.
The treatment options are similar to that of chronic neuropathies, namely pain medication. Certain anti-seizure drugs can also ease the symptoms of fibromyalgia, so your doctor may want to try one of them as well.
Research shows that physical activity is a good way to manage fibromyalgia. Other symptoms induced by this chronic pain, such as fatigue or depression, can be addressed medically or with your preferred mode of pick-me-up.
When to See Your Doctor
You should schedule an appointment with your doctor whenever your skin is sensitive to the touch and especially if this sensitivity is interfering with normal activity. Unexpected sensitivity, pain, or tenderness without any immediately obvious cause warrants investigation.