One of the many symptoms that may arise is sensitivity of the skin to touch. This is broadly referred to as hyperaesthesia and can occur anywhere on the body. Hyperaesthesia also refers to sensitivity of any of the senses, not only touch. Sometimes skin sensitivity occurs on the legs and while the cause is not always known, sensitive legs may be a symptom of various diseases and disorders.
What are sensitive legs?
The term sensitive legs can be misleading because ‘sensitive’ is such a broad term that is used to describe several symptoms. However, in most cases it means an area of the body, usually a surface (skin), which feels discomfort or pain easily with touch or even light pressure (tenderness). This is known as allodynia. There is often little to no visible trauma and sometimes there may be no preceding event to explain why the legs are sensitive.
As with any symptom, the sensitivity is subjective. For some people the pain or discomfort can occur with even the slightest stimuli, where even a light wind can trigger these sensations. However, when there is overt trauma or damage to the skin and/or deeper tissue of the leg then the sensivity of the affected area is normal. This is due to inflammation and the sensitivity of the legs should subside once the inflammation eases and the tissue heals.
Causes of Sensitive Legs
There are a host of different causes of sensitivity in any part of the body. Sometimes there is no underlying cause or reason for the sensitivity of the legs despite it being a problem for a person. It is possible that it could be due to psychogenic factors and may even be associated with nervousness/anxiety and psychological stress.
Although we do not often think of the legs as an area of the body that may be prone to sunburn unless we are tanning, if it is exposed (without clothing) then sunburn may occur. This applies to any uncovered part of the body. The sunburn may not always be as obvious if it is mild.
In fact only symptoms like sensitivity to touch or pain with touch/pressure may be one of the earliest symptoms. It is important to note that sunburn can occur with exposure to any ultraviolet (UV) light source, including prolonged use of tanning beds.
A host of skin conditions can cause skin sensitivity on the legs. However, contact dermatitis may be one skin condition that arises very suddenly due to exposure to certain substances. These substances may irritate the skin or trigger an allergic reaction. As a result the skin becomes inflamed and sensitive to touch, pressure, heat or cold and sometimes even sun exposure. A burning pain along with itching are commonly reported sensations.
- Skin applications: Lotions, creams, ointments and other skin applications can irritate or injure the skin thereby making it more sensitive. This includes depilatory creams and wax for hair removal as well as soaps and perfumes or deodorants.
- Clothing and footwear: Clothing and footwear can cause chaffing, especially if it is too tight or made from materials that irritate the skin or trigger allergic reactions.
- Perspiration: Perspiration that does not evaporate, especially if there is excessive sweating, can irritate the skin and therefore trigger inflammation (irritant contact dermatitis).
- Excessive scratching: Mechanical abrasion can also be self-inflicted as may occur with scratching. This may be due to skin diseases, dry skin or even nervous scratching. It may result in skin irritation and injury.
Read more on contact dermatitis.
Peripheral neuropathy is a nerve condition due to various causes. It can arise with a pinched nerve (compression), diabetes nerve damage, infections and various neurological conditions. The nerve becomes irritated or inflamed (neuritis). The area supplied by the affected nerve experiences different sensations (paresthesias) apart from pain. It may also become sensitive to touch but at the other extreme there can also be numbness of the affected area.
- Diabetic neuropathy: This is a common complication of long term and uncontrolled diabetes mellitus. The persistently elevated blood glucose levels damage peripheral nerves, especially of that of the legs.
- Shingles (herpes zoster): Reactivation of the varicella zoster virus (chickepox virus) can cause nerve inflammation usually on the torso but can also involve the legs.
- Meralgia paresthetica: This is a condition where there is pain or other abnormal sensations on the outer thigh due to compression or injury of the lateral cutaneous femoral nerve.
Read more on meralgia paresthetica.
Fibromyalgia is another possible contributing factor to sensitive legs. In this conditions there is a dull ache or mild pain throughout the body. It is usually accompanied by fatigue, disturbances in sleep and mental disruptions like difficulty concentrating. Areas where pain is present may be sensitive to touch or pressure. There may also be restless leg syndrome that co-exists with fibromyalgia.
Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is another condition where sensitive legs may be reported. In restless leg syndrome there is an urge to move the legs because of an unpleasant sensation. This movement may provide temporary relief from the trigger sensation. Typically the symptoms occur when at rest, like when sitting or lying down. It tends to worsen in the evening or night.
Problems with blood circulation in the legs can lead to pain, numbness and other abnormal sensations. This includes circulatory problems like peripheral arterial disease where there is limited arterial blood flow to the legs. Similarly vein problems like deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and varicose veins can also contribute to pain and sensitivity in the legs. These circulatory conditions can also give rise to open sores, such as arterial and venous ulcers.
Fungal infections involving the leg are common on the feet. This is known as athlete’s foot or tinea pedis. However, it can extend to other parts of the leg. Although these infections are superficial, it irritate and damage the skin where it may render the affected skin sensitive to touch or pressure. Similarly, fungal infections of the groin (jock itch or tine cruris) can extend lower down to the thighs. It may also cause sensitivity of the affected part of the skin.
Superifical bacteria infections like folliculitis (hair follicle infection) or impetigo (skin infections) may cause a burning sensation, pain or skin sensitivity. A deeper infection known as cellulitis occurs under the skin. It is a very serious infection and can be life threatening if left untreated. Cellulitis generally causes pain in the affected area but the overlying skin may be tender and sensitive to touch. The legs are a common site of cellulitis.