Research: Physical Pain Wanes When People Who Love Each Other Touch
“Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.” —Charles Dickens
Fathers-to-be, take note: You may be more useful in the labor and delivery room than you realize.
That’s one takeaway from a study released that found that when an empathetic male partner holds the hand of a woman in pain, their heart and respiratory rates sync and her pain dissipates.
“The more empathic the partner and the stronger the analgesic effect, the higher the synchronization between the two when they are touching,” said lead author Pavel Goldstein, a pain researcher in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at CU Boulder.
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On interpersonal synchronization
The study published in the journal Scientific Reports is the latest in a growing body of research on “interpersonal synchronization,” the phenomenon in which individuals begin to physiologically mirror the people they’re with.
Scientists have long known that people subconsciously sync their footsteps with the person they’re walking with or adjust their posture to mirror a friend’s during conversation. Recent studies also show that when people watch an emotional movie or sing together, their heart rates and respiratory rhythms synchronize. When leaders and followers have a good rapport, their brainwaves fall into a similar pattern. And when romantic couples are simply in each other’s presence, their cardiorespiratory and brainwave patterns sync up, research has shown. The study, co-written with University of Haifa Professor Simone Shamay-Tsoory and Assistant Professor Irit Weissman-Fogel, is one of the first to explore interpersonal synchronization in the context of pain and touch. The authors hope it can inform the discussion as health care providers seek opioid-free pain relief options.
Goldstein came up with the idea after witnessing the birth of his daughter, now 4.
“My wife was in pain, and all I could think was, ‘What can I do to help her?’ I reached for her hand, and it seemed to help,” he recalls. “I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”
Goldstein recruited long-term heterosexual couples aged 23 to 32 and put them through a series of tests aimed at mimicking that delivery-room scenario. Men were assigned the role of the observer; women the pain target. As instruments measured their heart and breathing rates, they: sat together, not touching; sat together holding hands; or sat in separate rooms. Then they repeated all three scenarios as the woman was subjected to a mild heat pain on her forearm for 2 minutes. As in previous trials, the study showed couples synced physiologically to some degree just sitting together. But when she was subjected to pain, and he couldn’t touch her, that synchronization was severed. When he was allowed to hold her hand, their rates fell into sync again and her pain decreased.
“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples,” Goldstein said. “Touch brings it back.”
Goldstein’s previous research found that the more empathy the man showed for the woman (as measured in other tests), the more her pain subsided during touch. The more physiologically synchronized they were, the less pain she felt.
It’s not clear yet whether decreased pain is causing increased synchronicity, or vice versa.
“It could be that touch is a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, or pain-killing, effect,” said Goldstein.
Further research is necessary to figure out how a partner’s touch eases pain. Goldstein suspects interpersonal synchronization may play a role, possibly by affecting an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with pain perception, empathy, and heart and respiratory function. The study did not explore whether the same effect would occur with same-sex couples or what happens when the man is the subject of pain. Goldstein did measure brainwave activity and plans to present those results in a future study.
He hopes the research will help lend scientific credence to the notion that touch can ease pain. Another study has shown that when a person holds hands with their significant other, they become more resilient to painful stimuli.
The power of a company
Can simply being in the company of the person we love have the same effect? A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Health Sciences, Medical Informatics and Technology in Hall, Austria, and the University of the Balearic Islands in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, thinks so. According to the researchers, just being in the same room as our romantic partner can improve our tolerance to pain, even if we don’t hold hands, otherwise touch, or receive any verbal support. The study’s findings appear in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain.
Researchers Jared Younger and colleagues studied the link between love and pain by scanning the brains of college students who all professed to being deeply in love and published their study in PLOS ONE The eight women and seven men were placed in brain scanners that tracked their body’s response to pain — in this case, a heated probe placed on the palm of the hand. Then the researchers studied the brain’s pain response under three different conditions. In one scenario, the study subject looked at a picture of an acquaintance. In another, the student looked at a picture of his or her beloved. And because other research has shown distraction also can relieve pain, the student was given a distracting word task — in this case, they were asked to name sports that don’t use balls.
Looking at a picture of a loved one reduced moderate pain by about 40 percent and eased severe pain by about 10 to 15 percent, compared to viewing the picture of an acquaintance. The distraction task also provided similar levels of pain relief, but researchers noted that the analgesic effects of love and distraction occurred in different pathways of the brain. Love-induced analgesia was associated with the brain’s reward centers, while the pain relief resulting from distraction occurred mostly along cognitive pathways, the researchers said.
In her book Touch, Tiffany Field claims that in many circumstances, touch is stronger than verbal or emotional contact. Touch is critical for children’s growth, development, and health, as well as for adults’ physical and mental well-being. Nevertheless, Fields argues that many societies, such as current American society, are dangerously touch-deprived—accordingly, many people today suffer from a shortage of tactile stimulation, which she terms “touch hunger.”
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