The Healing Power of Touch For Disease, Well-Being & Aging

According to experts, touching eases pain, lessens anxiety, softens the blows of life, generates hope and has the power to heal.

Aside from being your gateway to touch and a great place to hang your clothes, your skin is also your largest organ. In a grown man, it covers about 19 square feet and weighs about 8 pounds. A piece of skin the size of a quarter contains more than 3 million cells, 100 to 340 sweat glands, 50 nerve endings and 3 feet of blood vessels. 

No one is exempt from needing to be touched. Humans need to touch and be touched, just like we need food and water. The connection between touch and well-being is far more than skin deep. 

From the moment of birth our tactile sense is being stimulated. Pushed out, picked up, we are placed at our mother's breast, and a bonding process begins.

The need for bonding, or close physical contact with another human being, remains with us throughout our lifetime. It generally feels good to have another human being's skin come into contact with our own. Some of us repress our craving for warmth and affection, while others go to extremes to obtain it. Much of how we function as adults, depends on how we were nurtured during infancy. We have all experienced moments when the touch of a hand on our shoulder or a reassuring hug was all that was needed to reduce our fear, anxiety, or loneliness. Touching is an act of love, a way of communicating without words.
Touching can reassure us, relax us, comfort us, or arouse us, like nothing else. In a way, the importance of touch is so basic that we tend to take it for granted, just as we do breathing. As children, we were curious to touch everything we saw. But frequently as our hands reached out to explore, an adult voice could be heard to say, "don't touch," followed by an assortment of reasons implying that touching could be dangerous, rude, disrespectful, shameful, unsanitary, and even sinful. Many of us have been taught, either openly or by example, that touching is something to be suspicious of and avoided. This kind of ingrained thinking is often responsible for the sexual dysfunction we experience as adults. These constraints are difficult to shed, further inhibiting us from natural physical contact with others.

Often we regard touch as an amorphous, nonspecific kind of thing. But it isn't. You can be made to roll over with laughter with touch or you can be put to sleep with touch. All too often accidental touching, especially in public embarrasses us. Even an innocent handshake, if too prolonged, can be misconstrued as an invitation to a sexual encounter. Because touching has an excess of negative associations, with very little provocation it seems we flee from intimacy. 

In terms of sexual arousal, whatever you might see won't compare to ten seconds of the right touch. And as for pain, no matter how much you think a shrill sound or shocking image could make you grimace--forget it. There's nothing that hurts more than one stiff punch. Women are generally freer about hugging each other and holding hands. But if a woman is naturally tactile with men, her behavior can be easily misunderstood. Traditionally, a woman is taught to control any display of affection that could be interpreted as sexual; except with her partner. 

Studies & Benefits of Touching

Serious research on the importance of touch began only about 40 years ago. But, since that time, scientists have shown that the amount of body contact in our lives plays a vital role in our mental and physical development as infants and in our happiness and vigor as adults. Touch influences our ability to deal with stress and pain, to form close relationships with other people, and even to fight off disease. Birds do it. Bees do it. Even apes in trees do it…touch, that is. Especially the apes in trees. 

In fact, in addition to live births, giving milk and having hair on their bodies, the need for touch is the one thing that all mammals--humans included--seem to share. Mammalian systems are designed so that the infant care-giving process involves an enormous amount of contact. Among our closest relatives, the primates, contact between mother and baby is constant. For all mammals, touch is clearly important developmentally.

Touch loses some of its importance, as mammals grow older. But it still quite obviously remains important, and not only to humans. Consider the other mammals that we humans come in contact with most often. Dog owners know that Fido revels in having his neck or chin scratched. How many cat owners have never had an arching, purring feline rub against their legs? And dairy farmers will tell you that all cows love to be milked. Even the largest of all mammals seem to enjoy touch. Despite every good reason to fear humans, whales such as the humpback (up to 62 feet long and up to 53 tons) have been known to pop their prodigious heads out of the sea and allow themselves to be petted and scratched, sometimes for hours.

Various studies and experiments show the simple act of reaching out and touching another person frequently results in physical benefits such as slowing the heart rate, dropping blood pressure and speeding recovery from illness. For example, Dr. James Lynch, professor at Baltimore's University of Maryland School of Medicine conducts extensive studies on touch and its impact upon the body. "Physical contact has very dramatic effects upon psychological health," he says. "It lowers blood pressure. It relaxes you."
Other experts agree. "People who are more comfortable with touch are less afraid and less suspicious of other people's motives and intentions," says Stephen Thayer, professor of psychology at the City University of New York. "They tend to have less anxiety and tension in their everyday lives."

1. A study was conducted where researchers asked people who had spent no longer than 15 minutes in a library how they rated their experience in the library. People who had brushed hands "accidentally" with the planted librarian reported a more enjoyable time. In a similar study, people who were touched by their waitress, a brush of the hand, or a gentle touch on the shoulder, said they had a more enjoyable dining experience and left larger tips for the waitress as compared with those people who had no contact.

Science tells us that a touch triggers the release of brain endorphins: an endogenous analgesic more powerful than heroin or morphine. But touch is more than just a scientific confluence of brain chemicals.

2. Various studies have shown that when someone else gently holds a person's wrist, heartbeat slows and blood pressure declines. Children and adolescents, hospitalized for psychiatric problems, show remarkable reductions in anxiety levels and positive changes in attitude when they receive a brief daily back rub. The arteries of rabbits fed a high-cholesterol diet and petted regularly had 60% fewer blockages than did the arteries of un-petted but similarly fed rabbits. Rats, handled for 15 minutes a day during the first three weeks of their lives, showed dramatically less brain cell deterioration and memory loss as they grew old, compared with non-handled rats. Despite all these reasons to really reach out and touch someone, Americans find it difficult, and we don't do it often. Aside from a brisk handshake or an occasional embrace at the airport gate, touching just isn't a big part of our culture.

3. In one study, 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.

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.

4. 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.

5. 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 centers 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.

6. According to a Stanford University report, several studies show 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.

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.

7. At the Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio, a pilot study has begun involving 120 men with localized 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.

8. 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 defenses 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.

9. 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 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 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.

Our Touch Starved Culture

One study in the 1960s showed a stark contrast between cultures by noting the number of touches exchanged by pairs of people sitting in coffee shops around the world: In San Juan, Puerto Rico, people touched 180 times an hour; in Paris, France, 110 times an hour; in Gainesville, Florida, 2 times per hour; and in London, England, they never touched. A society's touch habits reflect the way people relate on other levels. 

Americans tend to be a touch cooler than, say, the cheek-kissing Italians or Spaniards. Our physical distancing partially reflects our psychological need for autonomy and independence.

Part of the blame for our society's taboo on touch, lies with the chin-scratching father of modern-day psychology, Sigmund Freud. Freud encouraged austerity in dealing with children. And parents, in an effort to be good parents, bought into that behavior. People, who aren't cuddled a lot as kids, tend to develop into non-touching adults. The cycle then repeats itself, generation after generation. But, Americans, particularly as they become more aware of the potential benefits of touch, are starting to do something about it. This change is especially tangible in the healing arts.

Born To Be Touched

The need for touch, as important as it is throughout our lives, is never more crucial than immediately following and shortly after exit from the womb. Because vision and hearing take time to fully develop, touch becomes possibly the most critical of all the senses to the newborn. There's no question that babies deprived of motherly affection don't fare too well--emotionally or physically. Years of experience with infants raised in public institutions have shown this to be true. 

Earlier in the century, infants, forced to live in such sterile environments, often wasted away and died. Back then, no one could provide any good explanations. Today, scientists offer fresh insight. Their studies on both human and animal babies have shown that the brain--by releasing or withholding certain chemicals--regulates the physical and emotional development of the infant. And the brain's actions, in turn, are controlled by touch. 

In studies with premature infants, half of the tiny babies, selected at random, were gently stroked for 45 minutes a day. The other half was not. Although all were fed the same amount of calories, after ten days, the touched babies weighed-in 47% heavier than the unstimulated group. Not only were those babies bigger, they were happier as well. The stroked kids were more active, more alert and more responsive to social stimulation.

In the adolescent years, the parents and child begin to withdraw from one another; the teenager, out of a sense of self-consciousness with her new feelings and physical changes, and the parents, out of book-learned attitudes and discomfort with their developing offspring. Hugging, kissing, and physical closeness may diminish or stop completely then, leaving the young adult starved for affection. This hunger is often satiated through indiscriminate sex with peers; a way of continuing touching where parents left off. The need for touching does not exclude the elderly. While the skin of an older person may be aesthetically less appealing because of wrinkles, spotting, and dryness, the human being inside the skin craves touching more than ever.

Hormonal Link

In the rat world, the equivalent of maternal stroking, hugging and tickling is licking. But because it's difficult to teach a mother rat to lick or not lick on command, it was found that a wet paintbrush makes a fairly good tongue substitute.

As the animals were made to believe that their mothers' affections were being turned on and off, it soon became clear that something else was being turned on and off at the same time: the brain's release of beta-endorphins, a chemical that appears to affect many aspects of growth and development. 

When an infant rat senses that its mother is absent, it reacts the way you might if you were stuck at sea in a small lifeboat. First it cries, and then it immediately quiets down. In a lifeboat, you'd probably do everything to conserve your food and water. And the helpless baby whose mom has disappeared shifts all its energy to support its life functions--neglecting those cellular functions that can make it grow up big and strong. The same kinds of physical reactions are going on in human infants deprived of touch. There was a period of about 30 years where the advice was to keep the baby away from the mother for the first week. But in the last few years, there has been a complete turn-around in pediatric practice. Now major efforts are being made to keep babies with their mothers right from the beginning. There are health benefits from snuggling and stroking pet animals, even inanimate objects--teddy bears, for instance. Look at primitive cultures--they're all very touch-oriented. If you want to go back further and look at the higher primates (the closest biological relatives to humans), in every single species, contact plays a very powerful role. 

In modern times, health care has strayed far from those primal roots. For while it might seem logical to incorporate touch as part of the healing process, medical historians generally agree that one of the first pieces of technology that set into motion the depersonalizing process in medicine appeared in 1819, with a piece of hardware called the stethoscope. This was the introduction of the technique of auscultation, the science of making diagnoses by listening to internal sounds of the human body. It gave the doctor a whole new way of collecting information about the patient's heart, lungs, and abdomen. It eliminated the old practice of pressing one's ear to the patient's chest. The stethoscope replaced this gesture with something more informative, but less intimate. It eliminated the soothing effect of human touch. More patients are turning to the hands-on skills of chiropractors, massage therapists, and other body workers, for a multitude of problems.
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Browne, J. (2004). Early relationship environments: physiology of skin-to-skin contact for parents and their preterm infants. Clinics In Perinatology, 31: 287-98.

Denison, B. (2004). Touch the pain away: new research on therapeutic touch and persons with fibromyalgia syndrome. Holistic Nursing Practice, 18: 142-51.

Kim, T., Shin, Y., & White-Traut, R. (2003). Multisensory intervention improves physical growth and illness rates in Korean orphaned newborn infants. Research In Nursing And Health, 26: 424-33.

Weze, C., et al. (2005). Evaluation of healing by gentle touch. Public Health, 119: 3-10.

Wood, D., Craven, R., & Whitney, J. (2005). The effect of therapeutic touch on behavioral symptoms of persons with dementia. Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine, 11: 66-74.


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