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What Causes Ticklish Feet and Why Some People Are More Sensitive Than Others

For people who are sensitive to tickling, feet are one of the most ticklish parts of the body.

Some people feel unbearable discomfort when the soles of their feet are brushed during a pedicure. Others hardly notice the sensation of blades of grass touching their feet when they’re barefoot outside.

Your sensitivity level to tickling is known as the tickle response. Scientists have analyzed the tickle response in feet and in other parts of the body, but continue to wonder what purpose being ticklish serves.

In this article, we’ll look at what causes ticklish feet, and why some people are more ticklish than others.

The feet are a very sensitive part of the body, and contain around 8,000 nerve endings. These nerve endings hold receptors for both touch and pain responses.

Some of these nerve endings are very close to the skin. That is one of the reasons why feet are ticklish in some people.

Types of tickle responses

There are two types of tickling which can occur to feet, or to other ticklish parts of the body.

Knismesis

Knismesis refers to light tickling sensations. These can be either pleasant or unpleasant. If your child or another person has ever begged you unendingly to lightly stroke and tickle their arms, legs, or feet, you know firsthand what knismesis is.

Knismesis also refers to disquieting tickles, such as those caused by a bug walking across your feet, or by anything that makes your feet feel tingly or itchy, such as sand on a beach.

Gargalesis

If someone vigorously starts to tickle your feet, generating discomfort and laughter, you’re experiencing gargalesis. This is the type of tickling associated with children’s tickle-torture games.

Gargalesis may be worse if you’re unaware. This type of tickling may have evolved over time as a defense mechanism to protect vulnerable parts of your body, such as your feet. It may also be perceived by the brain as pain. People are unable to tickle themselves and produce a gargalesis response.

Involuntary (autonomic) response

Both knismesis and gargalesis have been shown to stimulate a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. One of the jobs of the hypothalamus is regulating emotional responses. It also controls your reaction to painful stimuli.

If you’re very ticklish and laugh, or feel uncomfortable when your feet are tickled, you may be having an involuntary response generated by the hypothalamus.

The tickle response varies from person to person. Some people have feet that are more ticklish than others. The reason for this hasn’t been definitively shown, although it’s possible that there’s a genetic link.

Peripheral neuropathy

If your feet become less ticklish immediately or over time, there may be an underlying, medical cause, such as peripheral neuropathy. This is a degenerative nerve disease that damages the nerve endings in feet.

Peripheral neuropathy can be caused by:

If you have peripheral neuropathy, the nerve endings in your feet or in other parts of the body aren’t working correctly. This can cause numbness, tingling, or pain.

Peripheral neuropathy can make it hard or impossible for you to feel the type of stimuli which would generate a tickle response.

Peripheral neuropathy in feet that is caused by diabetes is known as diabetic neuropathy, or diabetic nerve damage. It can result from either type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

Nerve damage from diabetes doesn’t cause ticklish feet, although it can cause a tingling sensation which may be confused for ticklishness.

Since diabetic nerve damage can cause numbness, being able to feel a tickle on the soles of the feet is generally a sign that you don’t have diabetic neuropathy. Even so, if you have diabetes and are concerned about sensations you’re feeling, let your doctor know.

Feet are a sensitive part of the body which can be very ticklish in some people. The tickle response isn’t completely understood, but is thought to be an involuntary response directed by the hypothalamus.

Ticklish feet are not caused by diabetes, although the tingling sensation generated by diabetic neuropathy may sometimes be confused for a tickle.

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