Hidden sensory apparatus discovered in human skin

A transatlantic team of scientists have discovered a secondary sensory system, independent of the well-understood nervous system, hidden in the skin. These may be at the root of inexplicable chronic pain syndromes like fibromyalgia.
"It's almost like hearing the subtle sound of a single instrument in the midst of a symphony," said senior author Frank Rice, PhD, a Neuroscience Professor at Albany Medical College (AMC), who is a leading authority on the nerve supply to the skin. "It is only when we shift focus away from the nerve endings associated with normal skin sensation that we can appreciate the sensation hidden in the background."

The research team discovered this hidden sensory system by studying two unique patients who were diagnosed with a previously unknown abnormality by lead author David Bowsher, M.D., Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool's Pain Research Institute. These patients had an extremely rare condition called congenital insensitivity to pain, meaning that they were born with very little ability to feel pain. Other rare individuals with this condition have excessively dry skin, often mutilate themselves accidentally and usually have severe mental handicaps...

The answer appeared to be in the presence of sensory nerve endings on the small blood vessels and sweat glands embedded in the skin. "For many years, my colleagues and I have detected different types of nerve endings on tiny blood vessels and sweat glands, which we assumed were simply regulating blood flow and sweating. We didn't think they could contribute to conscious sensation. However, while all the other sensory endings were missing in this unusual skin, the blood vessels and sweat glands still had the normal types of nerve endings. Apparently, these unique individuals are able to 'feel things' through these remaining nerve endings," said Dr. Rice. "What we learned from these unusual individuals is that there's another level of sensory feedback that can give us conscious tactile information. Problems with these nerve endings may contribute to mysterious pain conditions such as migraine headaches and fibromyalgia, the sources of which are still unknown, making them very difficult to treat."

Hidden Sensory System Discovered in the Skin

(Image: Nothing But Skin, a Creative Commons Attribution photo from kevindooley's photostream)


  1. How odd!
    I am a paraplegic and for the past 30 years doctors (and myself) has wondered why I could “feel” extreme weight/pain being subjected to my feet and lower legs even though I’m total paralyzed.

  2. I had a minor operation on my finger three or four years ago, and unlike the previous (major) operation, the surgeon wouldn’t let me watch what was going on.

    So they hung up a sheet between me and my arm. During the operation I could feel what was happening quite specifically; for example at one point the surgeon scraped something off the joint and I could feel the angle of the scalpel.

    Or so I thought. When they took the sheet away my arm was at a completely different angle from where I thought it was. Reality was momentarily undermined, I was seriously shaken, and it took me a minute or so to regain proprioceptive ‘ownership’.

    My rationalisation at the time was that I’d performed a ‘reconstruction in software’ of what was going on from ambient sound and vibrations down the bones.

    1. Your post reminds me of being able to “feel” what was going on quite clearly when I have had wisdom teeth pulled, despite a completely numbed right half of my face. However, I was quite sure at the time and now that my knowledge of exactly what was happening was caused by the vibrations I could feel through my skull (and sensation in the neck telling me that forces were being applied that wanted to rotate my head).

    2. Piers,
      This is not really surprising, given the amount of such software/firmware reconstruction/simulation our brain does all the time. Our vision is not really full colour and high resolution edge-to-edge, yet we “see” it that way. I’m sure other sensations are also extensively “post-processed” and we only really notice this under specific circumstances e.g. optical illusions, drug effects, etc.

  3. Note that these days it isn’t all that uncommon for dentists to block specific nerves. This is a good thing because it avoids the whole-face-numb unable-to-speak effect, but it does mean that (as Ben pointed out) you can sometimes tell what’s going on. Personally, I liked being able to track progress, but I suspect some patients would rather not know…

    1. There are a few purported mechanisms, but it is not considered a settled matter. There’s also variations in types of migraine, so there may be different mechanisms behind the different variations.

  4. Fascinating.

    This explains a lot of bits of conventional wisdom:

    1.) When you hear of alcoholics who are described as “feeling no pain”, even when they’re not drunk. Perhaps when their smallest blood vessels are damaged (as alcohol abuse tends to do), these nerve endings suffer as well.

    2.) Muay Thai kick boxers train their shins to take abuse by continuously kicking targets until their nerve endings go numb. Perhaps these sensory systems in the blood might be what they’re working to destroy.

  5. Actually, the phrase “well understood nervous system” is currently an oxymoron, certainly if you’re talking about humans.

  6. It seems odd to me that this is considered an “unknown”. Doctors have known for some time that the small nerve endings in blood vessels can register severe pain in people with Reynaud’s syndrome (a fairly common circulatory condition which is aggravated by cold).

  7. Attention Cory and readers! My case is for the Guiness Book. I have had a case of undiagnosed Lyme Disease for 50 years. The oragnism causing the problem (Spirochetes) apparently failed to convert to the Bb virus due to the nasty little Texas Tick’s dietary preference.

    It is now apparent that I am being tracked by a group of RFID “Skimmers” that have me hooked up to a UHF Interogating scanner that any Pulsing Barcode Scanner used by FED EX and UPS drivers are able to track.

    Funny, I have high tech gangs and drivers showing up at every establishment I speak of at home…could it be those telemarketing calls and anymous or restricted calls we are getting on our land line as well as both our cell phones?

    There are a group of suspicious cars that park out in front of our house, too…weird stuff happens like our electric bills disappear for months and our sprinklers come on at 2 in the morning.

    If I ride the bus, there is a FED EX Driver or a UPS dude @ the bus stop, even if I decide NOT to take the bus and wait for the next one…here comes another driver..over and over…if I decide to browse in a drug store, here comes FED EX across the street getting gas early in the am-and I know it is mandatory for them to start the day with a FULL TANK. Pasadena is just a few miles long, you know.

    If I go to Target, Trader Joes, or my Dr.s office–here they are…right as I start and precisley as I finish.

    These wiseguys are showing up across from the bank ATM, the atm @ the grocery store, and, of course…on the bus and train system, too. Has anyone noticed the guys carrying backpacks that seem to weave in and out of people like he is trying to figure out where your cell phone is–just waiting for you to answer it or make a call?

    Well, now hear this–I got slammed by one of these dudes for phone charges from the LA County Jail..it was a three way conference call and somehow my minutes were extracted…a long distance call from the jail maybe.

    THIS IS SKIMMING. IT IS POSSIBLE that I was chipped in my apartment over a year ago in the back of my head.

    When these guys run the RFID Generator from a vehicle outside–or a mobile eeg unit–IT FEELS LIKE I AM DANGLING FROM THE CEILING FROM MY NERVE ENDINGS!

    And, the effects of UHF on the Spirochetes Organism–well, if it wasn’t for all of this high tech harrassment, I might not have discovered I still had this little varment or a family of them embedded in my muscle tissue. They get a little excited and squiggle like synchronized swimmers in the presence of certain frequencies…

    Anyone else have this kind of experience?

    1. Yes, you are being monitored. We are spending millions of dollars to monitor whether you had a salad for lunch or if you called your aunt Gertrude to discuss your trip to the hair salon. We find this information incredibly valuable for reasons even we can’t fathom.

      We also deliver packages on the side. We’ve found it to be pretty profitable when we aren’t working on our secret RFID projects.

      Oh, and by the way, you forgot to take your meds this morning.

  8. As a neuroscientist specializing in pain mechanisms, I’ like to clarify a few points:
    First, this is a sensationalized report of a finding that is not surprising (pain-sensing nerve fibers in blood vessels have been well-known for decades), and possibly wrong (these patients only lack one particular kind of “conventional” pain-sensing nerve fiber – other “conventional” kinds may still be intact and carrying pain sensations).
    Taro3Yen: Movement and sensation are carried by different pathways in different parts of the spinal cord, so it is possible (and not that unusual) to have completely normal sensation from a part of the body that is completely paralyzed.
    jeligula: Multiple mechanisms have been implicated in migraine, but it’s still a matter of hot debate
    jackm: Alcoholic neuropathy is well-known to involve damage to “conventional” pain-sensing nerve fibers – there is no need to invoke an unusual mechanism. Probably ditto for the Muay Thai phenomenon.
    Snig: Yes. And, yes – in fact, I’d go farther and say it’s only in invertebrates that we have a reasonably good understanding of the overall operation of the nervous system.
    Bryan3000000: The pain in Reynaud’s is due to ischemia (lack of blood flow) which is well-known to cause pain by activating “conventional” pain-sensing nerve fibers – there is no need to invoke an unusual mechanism.
    jannysk8z: Yes, you do have quite a problem with your nervous system.

  9. In chinese tradional martial art, we train this for a lot, we call it”TingJing” what means “TingJing”? “Ting” means “listen”, It is not means listen by hear, but by skin. But nowadays, only few people have good feeling from skin, it need long time training, My martial art teacher can do that.

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