New research suggests that physical touch, such as holding hands, could be helpful in reducing pain, most notably when it’s two people in a relationship, according to researchers from the University of Haifa in Israel, who presented their findings last week at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago.
“We all know that hand-holding is important for social support, but here we show the brain mechanism for this effect,” Simone Shamay-Tsoory, a psychology professor at the University of Haifa told Medium. “We show for the first time that brain waves are synchronized during hand-holding, and this support is effective at pain reduction.”
Shamay-Tsoory and her team have been conducting studies on the matter for years. First, in a study published in 2016 in the American Pain Society’s Journal of Pain, researchers compared the effect touch — from both loved ones and strangers — and empathy had on pain levels. They discovered that when loved ones held hands, pain levels were reduced. But when the empathy came from a stranger, it had no effect.
Then, in 2018, they followed up on that discovery and used EEG scans to measure a couple’s brain signals while holding hands when one partner was in pain. This time, as published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the couple’s brain waves sync’ed up.
Still, don’t expect to be hugging your pain away any time soon. Juulia Suvilehto, a researcher at the Linköping University in Sweden, who was not involved in the research, told Medium that she’s skeptical that a little hand hugging will do you any good — it’s probably correlational rather than causational.
Plus, she notes, touch has been shown to lower the body’s response to stress, which theoretically could diminish pain as well.
One thing’s for sure, though, “hold your hand through it” has a new, scientific meaning.
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