As frustrating and pointless an idea as it might seem, it turns out that lending a hand – a caring touch, precisely, when a loved one is in pain, can actually reduce their pain, according to a new research.
So there's a legitimate biological explanation now regarding why we go through the familiar urge to reach for a hand when in pain, or to be held when we are feeling sick.
In a research conducted by Colorado University, Boulder, results found that with a mere touch, a partner can communicate empathy and reduce pain sensations. Women also reported that their pain got milder from heat experiments with their partners in the same room, holding their hands.
"I was in the delivery room, and I felt like I didn't know how I could help my wife," recalls Pavel Goldstein, a neuroscience researcher at CU Boulder, who was dubious about touch's effect on reducing pain. "She asked me to hold her hand, not to speak too much, just to hold her hand, and that was very helpful to her."
Goldstein and his team then recreated the scenario in the lab, where 23 straight couples between the ages of 23 and 32 were studied. The only requirements were them being healthy, on no medications except birth control and them being in a romantic relationship.
They were exclusively 'defined as couple who reported being in a serious relationship, living together for at least one year and having significant feelings of love for each other.'
The women were subjected to pain in the form of heat, to their forearm, in four different settings: alone, in the same room but not touching their partner, while holding their partner's hand, and while holding a stranger's hand.
Of those settings, the significantly reduced amount of pain experienced by the women was recorded when they were holding their partner's hands, as compared to them experiencing the pain alone. A stranger's touch or just the partner's presence helped only slightly.
The empathy levels of the male partners were also noted and it was revealed that the more empathetic the men were to their partners, the more relief the women experienced.
The results also lead Goldstein to believe that 'touch is a tool for us transfer our empathy through touch, so it's about communication and is a possible way for expressing the synchrony.'
Yet while touch actively relays the emotion that a person wants to convey, it's not something that humans think about much, let alone do.
"You never had anyone teach you how to touch, right? It's not something we're very mindful of in our community," Goldstein says. If this can be modified, Goldstein believes, 'the effects of touch can be powerful'.
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"We have such a problem around painkillers, so it's very important today to find [other] methods for pain relief. I think about it like intelligence and muscle. When you want to do something really well, you want to practice the movement and skill. I think about this with touch and empathy," Goldstein says.
"Maybe we can use it more. I think touch is generally a good tool for connecting people - that doesn't mean you need to touch everyone in the streets - but I think that touching between friends or romantic partners is very powerful."