Researcher Studies How The Power Of Human Touch Can Relieve Pain
According to a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, holding a loved one’s hand may be an effective way to relieve pain – a simple use of an evolutionary characteristic that has helped socialize humans. It is among the first research to examine the interpersonal synchronicity of pain and human touch.
From the study:
“…skin to skin touch is important for pain reduction, which may explain people’s preference for social touch. Moreover, touch activates reward circuits in the brain. Indeed, skin-to-skin touch has been shown to activate the reward system, which results in pain reduction…It seems that this phenomenon has evolutionary roots.”
For the study, Pavel Goldstein, a pain researcher at CU-Boulder recruited 22 healthy couples aged 23-32, who underwent a number of tests that sought to mimic a delivery room situation. Naturally, men were assigned an observer role, and women were subjected to mild pain in the forearm for two minutes.
Instruments were used to measure heart and breathing rates, and the couples were put in three different situations. In one, couples were in separate rooms, and in another, they were together, but not touching. In a third scenario, they were together, holding hands.
While just sitting together, the couples’ breathing and heart rates synced, but when the woman experienced pain, and the man couldn’t touch her, that sync ended. When he held her hand, however, the rates synchronized again and her pain was reduced.
Past research by Goldstein revealed that the more empathy the man exhibited to the woman, the more her pain was reduced during touch. And the more their heart and breathing rates were synchronized, the more her pain subsided – although it’s not clear whether the synchronicity led to the reduction in pain or the other way around.
More studies are needed to ascertain how a partner’s touch alleviates pain, but Goldstein posits that the interpersonal synchronization may play a role by affection a brain region linked to the perception of pain, empathy, and respiratory and heart rates.
The study did not, however, explore whether this effect would also happen between same-sex couples, or what the outcome would be if the man were subjected to pain. However, this research could have important implications for chronic pain management, as it reveals one critical way in which others can hep relieve pain in a loved one who suffers.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology