The Healing Power of Human Touch
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Are you touchy-feely? Research shows that giving and receiving physical touch has the power to heal more than a broken heart.
Researchers at the University of Miami conducted more than 100 studies proving that safe and consensual skin-to-skin contact supports physical, emotional, and mental health. A recent small study from researchers in Germany found that women who hugged their romantic partners experienced an immediate drop in their stress levels. But the benefits of physical contact go far beyond feeling comforted.
Can massage make you feel better?
Tiffany Field, Ph.D., has been studying and promoting the effects of the human touch for decades. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she and her colleagues found that massage, in conjunction with conventional medical care, can help relieve symptoms of conditions ranging from anxiety, depression, autism, and anorexia to the pain caused by burns, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and headaches.
“Touch can slow the heart and brain waves,” she says. “This, in turn, relaxes and slows down the entire nervous system.”
The effects of touch can positively impact many aspects of the human experience throughout all stages of life.
“Newborns are comforted by being skin to skin with their parents,” says Dr. Field. “This continues with the elderly, who are happy when people hold their hands or give them a pat on the back.”
Hugging is good for your health
Researchers have found that safe touching, like massage and firm, prolonged hugging, can lead to:
- enhanced growth in preterm infants
- diminished pain (for people with conditions such as burns, fibromyalgia, and HIV)
- decreased autoimmune symptoms (e.g., increased pulmonary function in asthmatics and decreased glucose levels in diabetics)
- enhanced alertness (e.g., EEG measuring brain activity showed a pattern of alertness)
- reduced physical aggression in children
- improved sleep
“We did a study about migraine headaches, where participants learned to massage the neck tendon at the nape of their necks,” Dr. Field says. “We were able to reduce the headaches by 58%.”
Massage therapy may also enhance immune function.
“We observed this in research on patients with HIV and cancer,” she says. “We were surprised by the increased natural killer cells (the frontline of our immune system) that ward off bacterial, viral, and cancer cells.”
Massage may also contribute to improved cognitive function.
“Children with ADHD, for example, are more attentive following a massage,” she says. “Adults who are given a brief chair massage perform better on math computations.”
How the body responds to massage therapy
“The positive effects of massage therapy derive from the movement of the skin and the stimulation of pressure receptor cells under the skin,” Dr. Field says. “When the skin moves, it increases vagal nerve activity.”
The vagus nerve is part of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for involuntary functions like digestion, heart rate, and the immune system. Vagus nerve stimulation can trigger greater physical and mental attentiveness (improving cognitive alertness) and lower the body’s stress response.
This response to touch and skin movement decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol (the hormone released during stress and pain) while increasing oxytocin (a hormone released during moments of human connection associated with feelings of empathy and trust).
“We have also learned that massage increases serotonin, so it can help people with depression,” Dr. Field says. “Serotonin is an anti-pain neurotransmitter. If you can decrease cortisol, you can increase serotonin, the body’s natural defense against pain.”
What types of massage are beneficial?
Researchers found that moderate-pressure massage is more effective than light skin rubbing at stimulating significant responses in the body and brain. This is especially true for men.
“Men typically have a higher threshold to touch, likely because of greater muscle mass and/or skin fold thickness,” Dr. Field says. “They require more pressure for equivalent responses (like a bear hug). We discovered that moderate pressure (moving the skin) is key to massage therapy effects, even with premature infants in the NICU. Light pressure touching is arousing, while moderate pressure is calming.”
For those who can’t afford regular massages — or can’t convince their partner to do it often enough — almost any means of moving your skin and limbs can produce similar effects.
Exercise can give you the same kind of stimulation as someone hugging you, although the emotional-psychological component of having that intimate exchange with someone is missing.Tiffany Field
Try yoga/stretching, tai chi, laying on the floor and rolling side to side, sit-ups, crunches, swimming, biking, and walking (there are pressure receptors in the feet).
“Virtually any activity that moves the skin would result in effects that are similar to those of massage therapy,” Dr. Field says. “We learned that prenatal yoga, for example, was very effective at reducing depression in mothers and the rate of prematurity and low birth weight.”
For those who don’t like being touched
“Children with autism and women who have been sexually abused typically don’t like being touched, but they responded very positively in our massage therapy studies. We think this happens because the massage routine, unlike social touch, is very predictable.”
For those with an aversion to being touched by others, “self-massage, hugging oneself, brushing yourself with a loofah in the shower, and massaging a pet are ways to warm up to being touched. If you feel awkward about rubbing your limbs, use a ball as a form of self-massage or massage your scalp in the shower.
Even hand washing is a decent form of massage, as long as you move your skin and apply moderate pressure to it.”
The massager benefits as much as the recipient.
“We did a study on grandparents who massaged their infant grandchildren, and we learned that the grandparents also had reduced stress hormones,” Dr. Field says. “One thing parents can do for their children is to give back rubs and lots of hugs when they have the opportunity.
“We don’t really know how long the benefits of massage last. But, we suggest to folks that, like diet and exercise, they might need a daily dose of touch.”
Dana Kantrowitz is a regular contributor for UHealth’s news service.