Holding the hand of someone you love who is in pain can help reduce their suffering. [Photo: Bigstock]

Holding hands can help ease pain

15 March, 2018

Natural Health News — Holding the hand of a loved one in pain could significantly reduce their suffering.

The study, by researchers with the University of Colorado Boulder and University of Haifa, also found that the more empathy a comforting partner feels for a partner in pain, the more their brainwaves, breathing and heart rates fall into sync. And the more those brain waves sync, the more the pain goes away.

“We have developed a lot of ways to communicate in the modern world and we have fewer physical interactions,” said lead author Pavel Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at CU Boulder. “This paper illustrates the power and importance of human touch.”

The small study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is the latest in a growing body of research exploring a phenomenon known as “interpersonal synchronisation,” in which people physiologically mirror the people they are with.

Quick summary

» A new study has found that holding the hand of a loved one in pain could significantly reduce their level of pain.

» Researchers found that as couples held hands their brainwaves, breathing and heart rate fall into sync; the more in sync they become the greater the pain reduction.

» In addition, the more empathetic a man was to his partner’s pain more the couple’s brain activity synced.

It is the first to look at brain wave synchronisation in the context of pain, and offers new insight into the role brain-to-brain coupling may play in touch-induced analgesia, or healing touch.

Goldstein came up with the experiment after, during the delivery of his daughter, he discovered that when he held his wife’s hand, it eased her pain.

“I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”

Getting in sync

He and his colleagues at University of Haifa recruited 22 heterosexual couples, age 23 to 32 who had been together for at least one year and put them through several two-minute scenarios including sitting together not touching; sitting together holding hands; and sitting in separate rooms. During these scenarios electroencephalography (EEG) was used to measured their brainwave activity. Researchers then repeated the scenarios as the woman was subjected to mild heat pain on her arm.

Merely being in each other’s presence, with or without touch, was associated with some brain wave synchronicity in the alpha mu band, a wavelength associated with focused attention. If they held hands while she was in pain, the coupling increased the most.

Researchers also found that when she was in pain and he couldn’t touch her, the coupling of their brain waves diminished. This matched the findings from a previously published paper from the same experiment which found that heart rate and respiratory synchronisation disappeared when the male study participant couldn’t hold her hand to ease her pain.

“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronisation between couples and touch brings it back,” says Goldstein.

An empathy boost

Subsequent tests of the male partner’s level of empathy revealed that the more empathetic he was to her pain the more their brain activity synced. The more synchronised their brains, the more her pain subsided.

How exactly could coupling of brain activity with an empathetic partner kill pain?

More studies are needed to find out, said Goldstein. But he and his co-authors offer a few possible explanations. Empathetic touch can make a person feel understood, which research shows could activate pain-killing reward mechanisms in the brain.

“Interpersonal touch may blur the borders between self and other,” the researchers wrote.

The study did not explore whether the same effect would occur with same-sex couples, or what happens in other kinds of relationships. The takeaway for now, says Goldstein: Don’t underestimate the power of human touch.

“You may express empathy for a partner’s pain, but without touch it may not be fully communicated,” he said.