Sensory Modalities and Location

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The surface of the skin can be divided into topographic regions that relate to the location of sensory endings in the skin based on the spinal nerve that contains those fibers. (credit: modification of work by Mikael Häggström)

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The general senses are distributed throughout the body, relying on nervous tissue incorporated into various organs. Somatic senses are incorporated mostly into the skin, muscles, or tendons, whereas the visceral senses come from nervous tissue incorporated into the majority of organs such as the heart or stomach. The somatic senses are those that usually make up the conscious perception of the how the body interacts with the environment. The visceral senses are most often below the limit of conscious perception because they are involved in homeostatic regulation through the autonomic nervous system.

The sensory exam tests the somatic senses, meaning those that are consciously perceived. Testing of the senses begins with examining the regions known as dermatomes that connect to the cortical region where somatosensation is perceived in the postcentral gyrus. To test the sensory fields, a simple stimulus of the light touch of the soft end of a cotton-tipped applicator is applied at various locations on the skin. The spinal nerves, which contain sensory fibers with dendritic endings in the skin, connect with the skin in a topographically organized manner, illustrated as dermatomes. For example, the fibers of eighth cervical nerve innervate the medial surface of the forearm and extend out to the fingers. In addition to testing perception at different positions on the skin, it is necessary to test sensory perception within the dermatome from distal to proximal locations in the appendages, or lateral to medial locations in the trunk. In testing the eighth cervical nerve, the patient would be asked if the touch of the cotton to the fingers or the medial forearm was perceptible, and whether there were any differences in the sensations.

Other modalities of somatosensation can be tested using a few simple tools. The perception of pain can be tested using the broken end of the cotton-tipped applicator. The perception of vibratory stimuli can be testing using an oscillating tuning fork placed against prominent bone features such as the distal head of the ulna on the medial aspect of the elbow. When the tuning fork is still, the metal against the skin can be perceived as a cold stimulus. Using the cotton tip of the applicator, or even just a fingertip, the perception of tactile movement can be assessed as the stimulus is drawn across the skin for approximately 2–3 cm. The patient would be asked in what direction the stimulus is moving. All of these tests are repeated in distal and proximal locations and for different dermatomes to assess the spatial specificity of perception. The sense of position and motion, proprioception, is tested by moving the fingers or toes and asking the patient if they sense the movement. If the distal locations are not perceived, the test is repeated at increasingly proximal joints.

The various stimuli used to test sensory input assess the function of the major ascending tracts of the spinal cord. The dorsal column pathway conveys fine touch, vibration, and proprioceptive information, whereas the spinothalamic pathway primarily conveys pain and temperature. Testing these stimuli provides information about whether these two major ascending pathways are functioning properly. Within the spinal cord, the two systems are segregated. The dorsal column information ascends ipsilateral to the source of the stimulus and decussates in the medulla, whereas the spinothalamic pathway decussates at the level of entry and ascends contralaterally. The differing sensory stimuli are segregated in the spinal cord so that the various subtests for these stimuli can distinguish which ascending pathway may be damaged in certain situations.

Whereas the basic sensory stimuli are assessed in the subtests directed at each submodality of somatosensation, testing the ability to discriminate sensations is important. Pairing the light touch and pain subtests together makes it possible to compare the two submodalities at the same time, and therefore the two major ascending tracts at the same time. Mistaking painful stimuli for light touch, or vice versa, may point to errors in ascending projections, such as in a hemisection of the spinal cord that might come from a motor vehicle accident.

Another issue of sensory discrimination is not distinguishing between different submodalities, but rather location. The two-point discrimination subtest highlights the density of sensory endings, and therefore receptive fields in the skin. The sensitivity to fine touch, which can give indications of the texture and detailed shape of objects, is highest in the fingertips. To assess the limit of this sensitivity, two-point discrimination is measured by simultaneously touching the skin in two locations, such as could be accomplished with a pair of forceps. Specialized calipers for precisely measuring the distance between points are also available. The patient is asked to indicate whether one or two stimuli are present while keeping their eyes closed. The examiner will switch between using the two points and a single point as the stimulus. Failure to recognize two points may be an indication of a dorsal column pathway deficit.

Similar to two-point discrimination, but assessing laterality of perception, is double simultaneous stimulation. Two stimuli, such as the cotton tips of two applicators, are touched to the same position on both sides of the body. If one side is not perceived, this may indicate damage to the contralateral posterior parietal lobe. Because there is one of each pathway on either side of the spinal cord, they are not likely to interact. If none of the other subtests suggest particular deficits with the pathways, the deficit is likely to be in the cortex where conscious perception is based. The mental status exam contains subtests that assess other functions that are primarily localized to the parietal cortex, such as stereognosis and graphesthesia.

A final subtest of sensory perception that concentrates on the sense of proprioception is known as the Romberg test. The patient is asked to stand straight with feet together. Once the patient has achieved their balance in that position, they are asked to close their eyes. Without visual feedback that the body is in a vertical orientation relative to the surrounding environment, the patient must rely on the proprioceptive stimuli of joint and muscle position, as well as information from the inner ear, to maintain balance. This test can indicate deficits in dorsal column pathway proprioception, as well as problems with proprioceptive projections to the cerebellum through the spinocerebellar tract.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: