What to Know About Ticklish Feet

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 28, 2021
2 min read

Starting from our earliest years and onward, family members and friends tickle our feet. There are many theories about why our feet are so ticklish — but tickling in general remains a somewhat mysterious subject.

Scientists say there are two ways our bodies can be tickled. The first way is the kind that might make you laugh — that’s when someone applies repeated, deep pressure to certain parts of your body. Scientists believe primates also tickle one another and laugh when tickled.

Another type of tickling happens when something brushes lightly against your skin, like a blade of grass or a small insect. This type of tickling often makes people want to scratch themselves. It doesn’t usually make people laugh, except when it’s done to the feet.

Experts don’t know exactly why we’re ticklish, but they have theories. Some scientists think ticklishness is a protective reflex. A reflex is an action you do automatically, without thinking.

The reflex theory. Tickling often causes us to try to shield or move the part of the body being tickled. This reflex may have developed through evolution to be a way to protect vulnerable areas on our bodies — areas including our bellies, armpits, and feet.  

Each of these areas is vitally important if you’re being attacked. We have a lot of critical organs in the belly, our armpits house major arteries, and we need our feet to run away from danger.

Theory of parental bonding. Because tickling so often happens between babies and adults, some scientists have proposed that tickling developed as a way for parents to bond with their infants. 

One reason feet are ticklish is that they have more densely packed nerve receptors than most other places on the body. Upwards of 8,000 nerve endings can be found in your foot. This huge amount of nerves makes your feet more sensitive than other body parts, and more ticklish, too.

Some people don’t have ticklish feet. And in some cases, non-ticklish feet may point to an underlying health condition. For example, some people with diabetes don’t have ticklish feet. 

This is because the nerve receptors in their feet have been damaged and are no longer sending sensory information to the brain.

Other health concerns that non-ticklish feet may be symptoms of are metabolic syndrome and certain cancers.‌

For those with ticklish feet who laugh and enjoy the experience, there are possible health benefits. Laughter helps protect your heart, as it lowers stress levels that can inflame your heart muscles and blood vessels. 

Laughter also burns calories. For every 15 minutes you spend laughing, your body burns between 10 to 40 calories.