The Grapevine

Can A Soothing Touch Actually Reduce Pain?

Could a soothing touch actually reduce our pain in a not-so-figurative way?

You might recall our recent article on some of the potential benefits of massages. While most of them were concerned with physical health, one expert drew attention to emotional well-being by emphasizing the "nurturing touch" involved in massages.

Unsurprisingly, a touch is all the more nurturing when it comes from a loved one, even if less professional than a massage — this could be anything like a friendly pat on the back, being hugged, holding hands, or having them run their fingers through your hair.

Such forms of gentle physical contact have even been referred to as a form of "therapy," shown to help in reducing stress, lowering heart rate, enhance attentiveness and alleviate pain.

Of course, touch is an important way to communicate and bond with young ones who have not grasped language just yet. This is one of the many reasons why practices like skin-to-skin care are recommended. In a new study from the United Kingdom, researchers found that gently stroking a baby could even reduce pain-related activity in his or her brain. 

Senior author Rebeccah Slater, of the University of Oxford, noted past research showing how touch "may increase parental bonding, decrease stress for both the parents and the baby," and even reduce the length of hospital stay. Furthermore, one does not have to worry about the risks of side effects.

So what does neuroscience have to say about this phenomenon? One theory suggests how synchronization may be what bridges the gap between pain relief and a healing touch.

Ever noticed instances where you tend to mirror a close friend or loved one? You may mimic their body language or sync up your footsteps without realizing it. This tendency is widespread and has been studied for quite some time.

Pavel Goldstein, a pain researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, explained how when pain interrupts interpersonal synchronization between two people, touch can bring it back.

Earlier this year, he and his team published a study involving 22 heterosexual couples. In one experiment, the women were subjected to a mild form of pain while their partners either sat across the room or sat next to them and held their hand.

It was found that holding hands with a loved one not only synchronizes breathing and heartbeats but also brain wave patterns. This, in turn, reduced their pain by activating the reward circuits in the brain.

Interestingly, Goldstein also measured empathy levels of the man in past research. It appeared that the more empathy the man showed for his partner, the more her pain subsided during touch.

"Thus, the use of touch may improve the quality of non-verbal physiological communication between partners, especially when one of them feels pain, enabling the toucher to better project his empathy to the female partner and consequently have an analgesic effect," he explained.