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:

  • "Tactile" means touch.
  • "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.

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. Along with fibromyalgia, it's associated mainly with pain conditions including neuropathy, postherpetic neuralgia, and migraine.

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

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:

Sometimes, allodynia may be set off by something, such as scratching an itch or stepping on something sharp.

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.

You know how sometimes your hand will flinch away from a hot burner before you even realize 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, our nociceptors start perceiving that all kinds of sensations are painful. Researchers believe is part of the central sensitization associated with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and a handful of other conditions.

Treating Tactile Allodynia

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 known to work well against this pain type.

Those treatments 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 and it could take time to find what works well for you.

You may also want to experiment with lifestyle/habit changes that 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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