How the power of touch reduces pain and even fights disease

When Jim Coan scanned the brains of married women in pain, he spotted changes that may help to shed light on an age-old mystery. As soon as the women touched the hands of their husbands, there was an instant drop in activity in the areas of the brains involved in fear, danger, and threat. The women, who had been exposed to experimental pain while they were scanned, were calmer and less stressed, and a similar, but smaller, effect was triggered by the touch of strangers.

"It's the first study of the brain's reactions to human touch in a threatening situation, and the first to measure how the brain is involved in the health-enhancing properties of close social relationships," said Dr Coan, a neuroscientist at Virginia University.

Touch, a key component of traditional healing, is being increasingly studied in mainstream medicine, with some trials showing symptom benefits in a number of areas, from asthma and high blood pressure to migraine and childhood diabetes. Other research findings hint that not only does touch lower stress levels, but that it can boost the immune system and halt or slow the progress of disease.

The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine says it has carried out more than 100 studies into touch and found evidence of significant effects, including faster growth in premature babies, reduced pain, decreased autoimmune disease symptoms, lowered glucose levels in children with diabetes, and improved immune systems in people with cancer.

At the Institute for Postgraduate Dental Education in Sweden, a small trial involving 10 patients with fibromyalgia syndrome found that eight benefited from touch therapy. "The results of the pilot study are so encouraging that they warrant an extended study,'" said the researchers.

Cincinnati Children's Hospital is one of a number of leading health centres in the US that now uses healing touch therapy. "Research has demonstrated that patients who receive healing touch experience accelerated wound healing and relaxation, pain relief and general comfort," said a spokesman.

According to a Stanford University report, several studies are showing significant benefits in wound healing, pain and anxiety. It says touch therapy may also have positive effects on fracture healing and arthritis. But some studies have failed to find an effect for touch, while others have had mixed results. One review of 11 separate studies found that seven showed a beneficial effect, three showed no effect, and one had a negative effect. Two out of four studies found a significant effect, but the others showed that those who did not get the touch therapy progressed better.

Some believe the power of touch is all down to the placebo effect. "If you touch your partner they feel relaxed, but if someone else touches they may not feel as relaxed," said Professor Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter. "That is very much mind over matter. It has nothing to with the sensations of being touched, it is the expectation and the context of the intervention, rather than the specific effect of that intervention."

While touch is used extensively for stress and anxiety and in palliative care, research is now increasingly focussing on whether it can impede the progress of a number of diseases, including depression and cancer.

At the Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio, a pilot study has begun involving 120 men with localised prostate cancer, to see whether hand-healing through the complementary therapy reiki affects levels of anxiety and progression of the disease. One of the hopes is that the advance of the disease can be halted or slowed.

And at the University of Iowa, a study is looking at the effects of healing touch on 64 women with advanced cervical cancer. Researchers say the aim is to see whether touch can boost the immune system and improve the body's natural defences against the disease.

While research such as this may suggest beneficial effects, the mechanisms that could be involved are far from clear. One of the most common findings from research, including a study at the Institute of Neurological Sciences in Glasgow, is that touch lowers heart rate and blood pressure. But how? Work at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, may provide an answer. It has shown that touch and massage can cut levels of stress hormones, which have been implicated in increasing the risk of a number of diseases. Touch many also increase levels of melatonin and of the feel-good hormone, serotonin.

Researchers at Ohio State University have found that psychological stress can increase the blood levels of hormones that then interfere with the delivery of cytokines, key immune system elements, to the site of an injury. The result, they say, is a slowing down of the wound healing process.

They also found that wounds took a day longer to heal when the patient had been involved in an argument with a loved one, and that in married couples who did not get on, wound healing took two days longer. "Wounds in the couples who were hostile healed at only 60 per cent of the rate of couples with low levels of hostility," said Dr Janice Kiecolt-Glaser.

That finding, plus those of Dr Coan, may explain why the touch of a loved one can be therapeutic. But they do not explain why the touch of practitioners and strangers can have a similar effect. At DePauw University in Indiana, Dr Matthew Hertenstein may have found an answer. He has discovered that touch communicates emotions. When people were touched by a stranger they could not see, who had been instructed to try to communicate a particular emotion, they were able to tell the emotional state of the other person with great accuracy.

The findings show that people can communicate several distinct emotions through touch alone, including anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Accuracy rates ranged from 48 per cent to 83 per cent, comparable with those found in studies of emotions shown in faces and voices. "The evidence indicates that humans can communicate several distinct emotions through touch," said Dr Hertenstein. "Our study is the first to provide rigorous evidence showing that humans can reliably signal love, gratitude and sympathy with touch. These findings raise the interesting possibility that touch may convey more positive emotions than the face.''

What it suggests, too, is that touch is a much more sophisticated tool that previously thought. It could also explain why different trials on the therapeutic effects of touch can get differing results. It may be that touch works, but that it needs the right person, in the right mood, doing the touching.

How hugs can heal

* Hugging your partner could lower his or her blood pressure.

* Researchers have found that in younger women, the more hugs they get, the lower their blood pressure.

* Researchers at the University of North Carolina who investigated 69 pre-menopausal women showed that those who had the most hugs had a reduced heart rate.

* Exactly what could be responsible is not clear, but the psychiatrists who carried out the work also found that blood levels of the hormone oxytocin were much higher in the women who were hugged the most.

* Other research finds that oxytocin is released during social contact and that it is associated with social bonding, while a study at Ohio State University shows that when it is put into wounds in animals, the injuries heal much more quickly.

* Work at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences suggests that oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects, including reduction in blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol: "It increases pain thresholds and stimulates various types of positive social interaction, and it promotes growth and healing. Oxytocin can be released by various types of non-noxious sensory stimulation, for example by touch and warmth," they say.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
film
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager - Contact Centre Sales - £100,000 OTE

    £35000 - £50000 per annum: h2 Recruit Ltd: After a highly successful 2014, a m...

    Recruitment Genius: Junior Account Manager / Telesales - £24,000 OTE

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Strong telesales or retail expe...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultants

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £Competitive: SThree: SThree Group and have be...

    Recruitment Genius: Chief Engineer

    £50000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chief Engineer is required to...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?