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Doc: Tactile hypersensitivity from clothes on skin

October 5, 2018

Dear Dr. Roach: I am a 75-year-old man with an arthritic back, urinary tract problems and, worst of all, highly sensitive skin!

There are few items of clothing that I can tolerate. I turn tank top shirts inside out, preventing seams from irritating my skin. This has been a progressive problem since birth, worsening significantly over time. I’ve never heard of anyone having this problem.

Is there any major research relevant to this problem?

E.A.

Dear E.A.: “Tactile hypersensitivity” simply means that people are more sensitive to touch. It is not uncommon, and it can be associated with sensory processing issues of other types. Tactile defensiveness is a closely related concept, but that includes other types of touching perceived as unpleasant. Caregivers of special-needs kids and adults see this frequently, especially among people on the autism spectrum. It also is frequently associated with anxiety, but it can happen to people with no identifiable conditions. It is frequent enough that there are clothing lines that have non-scratchy labels with carefully sewn seams and that are made of very soft and non-irritating fabrics. These are quite popular now for children, but not as easily found for adults. You also can purchase special tape to cover the seams.

I can’t put urinary tract problems together with your condition, but many people with arthritis often have bony protuberances right around where seams in clothing usually are, which may partially explain why the problem seems to be getting worse.

I found quite a few articles written on this, for medical professionals, as well as for the layman. Some of this comes from occupational therapy researchers, which is one place you might be able to find more about it or get additional help.

Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.

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