Fibromyalgia and Tactile Allodynia

When Your Skin Hurts From a Simple Touch

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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 that 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 a common symptom of 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:

  • "Tactile" means touch.
  • "Allodynia" means 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.

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

Along with fibromyalgia, tactile allodynia is associated mainly with pain conditions including neuropathy, postherpetic neuralgia, and migraine.

What It Feels Like

Tactile allodynia can range from mild to 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. Sometimes, allodynia may be set off by something, such as scratching an itch or stepping on something sharp.

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—even fabrics that other people find soft, such as silk or satin

    The good news is that there are ways to find relief from clothing-related pain and get more comfortable in bed. 

    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 at skin level.

    You know how sometimes your hand will flinch away from a hot burner before you even realize that you're about to burn yourself? That's due to the unique action of nociceptors, which actually work on their own, without having to send signals to the brain and get a response back.

    In fibromyalgia, for some reason, nociceptors start perceiving that all kinds of sensations are painful. Researchers believe it's part of the central sensitization that's associated with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and a handful of other conditions.

    Top Treatments

    Any treatments that lessen your fibromyalgia symptoms may help alleviate allodynia. If this is a major symptom for you, you may want to consider a treatment that's known to work well against this pain type.

    Those treatments include:

    • Topical lidocaine

    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. You may also want to experiment with lifestyle/habit changes that may help you lessen or avoid triggers.

    Other Forms of Fibromyalgia Pain

    Allodynia also comes in two other forms: 

    • Mechanical allodynia: This involves movement across the skin, such as from clothing or even air.
    • Thermal allodynia: This involves temperature, which can be heat, cold, or both.

    Fibromyalgia involves other pain types, as well, including:

    • Hyperalgesia, which is pain amplification by the brain and nerves
    • Paresthesia, which is abnormal nerve sensations such as burning, tingling, and itching

    People report other types of pain as well, but not all of them are medically classified, let alone understood.

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