Experiencing the different dimensions of life can be interesting when all your senses are working correctly. But sometimes, one or more of your senses can go into overdrive, and you may develop extreme sensitivity to stimuli such as touch, light, sound, taste, smell, or temperature. This heightened sensitivity may even cause pain. If you experience this kind of extreme sensitivity, your doctor may diagnose you with hyperesthesia.
Although this extreme sensitivity to stimulation is especially felt on the skin, hyperesthesia can present in other forms, including:
- Muscular hyperesthesia: Sensitivity to pain and tiredness
- Tactile hyperesthesia: Sensitivity to touch
- Optic hyperesthesia: Sensitivity to light
- Acoustic or auditory hyperesthesia: Sensitivity to sound
- Gustatory hyperesthesia: Sensitivity to taste
- Olfactory hyperesthesia: Sensitivity to smell
Causes of Hyperesthesia
Hyperesthesia is usually caused by what doctors call a peripheral nerve disorder or peripheral neuropathy. The peripheral nervous system includes all the nerves outside of your brain and spinal cord. Peripheral neuropathy occurs when nerves in the peripheral nervous system have been damaged or are diseased.
When peripheral neuropathy is a result of an underlying condition, your doctor will call it symptomatic. When your doctor can't explain how neuropathy came about, it is called idiopathic (with no known cause). Symptomatic neuropathy may be the result of:
- Physical injury or trauma
- Vascular and blood problems
- Autoimmune diseases
- Hormonal imbalances
- Kidney and liver disorders
- Nutritional or vitamin imbalances, alcoholism, or exposure to toxins
- Certain cancers and benign tumors
- Chemotherapy drugs
Other causes may include:
- Too much caffeine. Something as simple as too much coffee can stimulate parts of the central nervous system and cause temporary hyperesthesia that can last for 3-5 hours.
- Viral infection. In some cases, a viral infection may cause extreme sensitivity to stimulation. Varicella zoster (which causes chicken pox and shingles), Lyme disease, herpes simplex, cytomegalovirus, and COVID-19 have been known to attack peripheral nerves.
- Nerve compression. When a nerve is put under pressure (compressed or pinched) by surrounding tissue, the function of the nerve is disturbed, and you may experience pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness.
Depending on which sense or senses are affected, people with hyperesthesia may experience a range of different symptoms. A person with acoustic hyperesthesia may experience auditory hallucinations, while someone with olfactory hyperesthesia may be overwhelmed by scents that are not actually present.
Hyperesthesia symptoms start slowly and get worse over time. Some general symptoms may include:
- Tingling or burning sensation
- Numbness or lack of feeling
- Pain and sensitivity to touch
- Muscle weakness
In rare or severe cases, hyperesthesia can cause inflammation of nerves and lead to seizures.
Because there are so many possible and different symptoms, hyperesthesia can be hard for your doctor to diagnose. You will need to provide your doctor with a complete history of your symptoms, medications, surgeries, substance abuse, or psychiatric disorders. In addition, you may need to undergo one or more of these procedures:
- Blood tests: Blood tests can help your doctor discover vitamin deficiencies, toxic elements, or unusual immune responses that may contribute to your symptoms.
- Diagnostic tests: Your doctor may recommend an electrodiagnostic test such as a nerve conduction study to measure the electrical activity of muscles and nerves. Diagnostic tests can help identify any nerve damage and the degree to which damage has occurred.
- Neurological evaluations: A neurological evaluation includes physical examination and several painless tests to determine your neurological function. These tests help check muscle strength and your response to different sensory stimulations.
Treatment of Hyperesthesia
Hyperesthesia and other neuropathic pain symptoms can be hard to control. In many cases, hyperesthesia cannot be completely cured, but the symptoms can be managed. Your doctor may recommend lifestyle modifications, minor invasive surgery, and/or medications such as analgesics, antidepressants, topicals, or opioids.
People with hyperesthesia will usually need to be treated by one or more of the following specialists:
- Physical therapist
- Occupational therapist
- Pain medicine specialist
- Sleep medicine professional
- Psychiatrist or psychologist
- Neurologist or neurosurgeon
In rare and extreme cases, your doctor may recommend a medical implant to help manage pain and other symptoms, but this is considered a last resort.
It is important to talk to your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of hyperesthesia, as it may indicate a more serious issue. In some cases, when an underlying cause can be identified and treated, injured nerves will recover and regenerate. Even when nerve damage is permanent, treatment can prevent further damage and worsening of symptoms.