Sensory sensitivity

Timothy C. Hain, MD, Chicago IL. •Page last modified: December 16, 2022

Sense Lower threshold Greater Discomfort Measure
Light Light sensitivity Photophobia  
Sound Hyperacusis Phonophobia LDL (loudness discomfort)
Smell Smell sensitivity Osmophobia UPSIT (mainly for reduced smell)
Weather Barosensitivity ? Barophobia ?  
Pain   Allodynia  
Motion sensitivity   Motion sickness, kinesophobia Various questionnaires
visceral hypersensitivity food, medication sensitivity ? IBS ?  

There are separate pages on many these topics (see links above).

Groups reported with sensory sensitivity.

Autism spectrum:

Baruth et al (2010) stated "It has been reported that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have abnormal responses to the sensory environment. For these individuals sensory overload can impair functioning, raise physiological stress, and adversely affect social interaction. Remington and Fairnie (2017) reported that "Autistic people were better at detecting additional unexpected and expected sounds (increased distraction and superior performance respectively). This suggests that they have increased auditory perceptual capacity relative to non-autistic people. " Ronconi et al (2018) reported that persons with autism have superior visual processing. Narzisi, A., et al. (2022). reported "Sensory reactivity is considered one of the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)" Dellapiazza, F., et al. (2018). reports a very high prevalence of sensory processing disturbances.

The literature about "sensory processing disorder", a term often used in pediatric occupational therapy contexts, seems mainly to be in reference to autism spectrum disorder.


Braff and Geyer (1990) stated that "Clinically, schizophrenic patients report oversensitivity to sensory stimulation that theoretically correlates with stimulus overload and leads to cognitive fragmentation. Animal model studies demonstrate that increased systemic aminergic activity and increased nucleus accumbens dopamine tone causes sensorimotor gating failure, similar to that seen in schizophrenic patients

Treatment of sensory hypersensitivity

Little is written about this subject. We were not able to find any papers at all about drug treatment of high sensitivity to sensory inputs, outside of the "central sensitization" literature. Here are a few recent papers about drug treatment of "central sensitization"

Migraine medication:

For persons with migraines, the usual approach is to draw on the extensive repertoire of migraine prevention drugs. These primarily include antidepressants, beta-blockers, and seizure medications. The most commonly used antidepressants are venlafxine or tricylics, and anticonvulsants, such as topiramate or lamictal. There are just a few studies (see above).

Sometimes there is some response to migraine abortive medications (usually NSAIDs). One would wonder how the triptans (which work on the trigeminal pathway), or nonsteroid pain medications such as ibuprofen could possibly affect sensory input from non-trigeminal pathways (such as sound, light, or smell). Perhaps by reducing somatosensory input, they downmodulate these other senses.

Avoidance vs habituation

One strategy, often a good one for migraine patients, is "not asking for trouble" and avoiding sensory stimuli. . In other words, avoidance. Shutting down inputs -- avoiding light and loud noise, taking a pain medication, avoiding strong smells -- these might help in avoiding discomfort. This is commonly used in Migraine -- for example, wearing sunglasses indoors, and avoiding stimulating activities such as loud concerts.

The opposite strategy, often advocated by the physical therapy community (for motion sensitivity), the psychotherapy community (for phobias), and the audiology community (for hyperacusis), is to seek out sensory input in an attempt to get used to it. This is called habituation. The "B" part of CBT psychotherapy, is behavioral, and involves concepts originally drawn from the work of Skinner and Pavlov. This is a reasonable approach, as if it works, it can avoid disrupting one's life as well as taking drugs.

It has been our clinical experience that patients often first try habituation, and if this fails, switch to avoidance.


Benzodiazepine medications (like valium) reduce responses to adverse sensory input, and can be used to treat central sensitization. Unfortunately they are addictive, have adverse effects on cognition, and as time goes on, people get used to them and they stop working.