The skin is rich in nerve receptors that enable the sense of touch. They send messages to the brain, warning when the body is exposed to environmental hazards such as fire or extreme cold. Nerve stimulation sends feelings of pain or pleasure to the brain, which activates a response. Nerve receptor density varies between individuals, causing a range of reactions to the same stimulus, explains L'oreal's Skin Science website. Additionally, nerve damage and skin disorders can cause the nerves in the skin to relay incorrect messages.
Sensitive skin conditions affect millions of people. Most conditions are diagnosed through a medical history, visual inspection, biopsies and patch tests that expose the skin to suspected irritants. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, various types of reactive skin disorders include the burning and stinging that occurs from light contact or even no contact at all, rosacea, allergies or contact dermatitis, and acne.
Often there is very little evidence available to determine the cause of sensitive skin. Many patients who complain of sensitivity when their clothes or various fabrics touch them are allergic to some of the chemicals used to create or process the fabric, explains Marie Marriott and her colleagues in their article The Complex Problem of Sensitive Skin. Vascular disorders that create a disruption between the blood vessels and the nerves can also cause pain when the skin is touched.
Neuropathic pain resulting from nerve damage can cause a sensitivity to light touching. According to the SpineUniverse website, the injury may occur in the central nervous system or in peripheral nerves and create heightened sensitivity. Diseases, trauma, surgical aftereffects and repetitive motion syndromes can all contribute to the hard-to-diagnose discomfort of the skin. Chemotherapy drugs can cause the skin to become extra sensitive to touch as well.
People who have had spinal cord injuries are especially at risk for developing nerve-ending conditions. The skin may burn or tingle when touched. The pain can severely limit daily activities. The skin pain following a spinal cord trauma can occur not only when the skin is touched, but also when it's exposed to heat or cold.
The effects of a brain injury can cause nerve sensations to react abnormally. The thalamus is the brain's central processing center for physical sensation. Trauma or a disease such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease can cause thalamic pain syndrome, notes SpineUniverse. People who have had a stroke may also undergo some level of brain injury that could cause skin sensitivity. This condition is typically treated with pain medication, antidepressants or electrical stimulation.