Painful to Touch: Fibromyalgia & Tactile Allodynia

Does Your Skin Hurt? Here's Why!

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It's another one of those fibromyalgia symptoms that just doesn't make sense -- pain, sometimes severe pain, from a simple touch. The closest thing it compares to is having a sunburn all the time. A lot of people don't understand this symptom, including those who have it, because while it's common in fibromyalgia, it's rare in the general population.

This kind of pain is called tactile allodynia. Here's what that means, in non-medical terms:

  • "Allodynia" means a that your body perceives something as pain when it's actually harmless. Pain is supposed to come from damage, but no damage is present or being inflicted.
  • "Tactile" means touch.

So tactile allodynia is what makes your clothes hurt when they touch your skin, what makes a sheet feel like sandpaper, and turns a light touch into searing pain.

While some types of pain (like muscle or joint aches) are very common, tactile allodynia is rare. It's associated mainly with pain conditions including neuropathy, postherpetic neuralgia and migraine along with fibromyalgia.

What is Tactile Allodynia Like?

Tactile allodynia can range from mild or severe. It can be all over the body or only in certain areas. It can be constant, or it may come and go with symptom flares.

Common complaints from people with this condition include:

  • Burning and/or squeezing-type pains from waistbands (even if they're not tight,) bra straps, socks, and other clothing that constricts or puts pressure on the skin.
  • Pain from tags in shirts or stitching that's against the skin.
  • All-over pain from fabrics that aren't extremely soft. Sometimes, even fabrics that other people find soft, such as silk or satin, may feel unpleasant to the person with fibromyalgia.

As you might imagine, this symptom puts a lot of our focus on the clothes we wear and the sheets that are on our beds.

For help managing those areas of your life, see:

In my case, I only have tactile allodynia in a few areas (mainly my waist, chest and feet) and it needs to be set off by something, like scratching an itch or stepping on a power cord. I have to be especially careful about how I dress, because a too-tight band or scratchy fabric can cause intense burning pains that start at the skin and then rip through my whole body.

What Causes Tactile Allodynia?

This form of pain comes from a malfunction of specialized nerves called nociceptors. The job of nociceptors is to sense information about things in your environment, such as temperature and things that may cause you harm, right at skin level.

In fibromyalgia, for some reason, our nociceptors start telling our brains that just about any sensation is painful. Researchers believe is part of the central sensitization associated with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and a handful of other conditions.

Treating Tactile Allodynia

So what can we do about tactile allodynia? Drugs that work for some people include:

Some people also get relief from topical pain creams including capsaicin-containing products, Tiger Balm, Aspercreme, and BioFreeze.

It can take a lot of experimentation to find what works best for you.

As you might suspect, massage can be tricky for someone with allodynia, as can other treatments that involve someone touching you. To keep this treatment from making you worse, see:

Everyone's experience with allodynia is different. For relief, your doctor is a great resource. You may also want to experiment with lifestyle/habit changes that help you lessen or avoid triggers.

Allodynia also comes in two other forms: mechanical (movement across the skin) and thermal (temperature sensitivity.) You can learn more about them as well as other fibromyalgia pain here:

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