The Health Benefits of Touch
The "human touch" may actually have healing powers.
Joyce Roberson of New Mexico learned first-hand how important touch can be. Her son was born almost four months prematurely and spent the first two months of his life in a hospital incubator. Weighing only one pound at birth, he was not expected to live. After his critical situation stabilized somewhat, Joyce spent hours at a time just reaching into the incubator to place her hands on her baby, and when she was able to actually hold her son, she would sit and rock him for extended periods.
Did Joyce's touching and holding save her son's life, allowing him to develop into the healthy seven-year-old he is today?
"I'd be hard pressed to prove that," Joyce admits, "but in my heart I truly believe that my touching and stroking and holding him constantly gave him a will and the strength to live."
We intuitively respect the need to give children plenty of positive physical attention, but only recently has touch been recognized as important to the development and health of humans of all ages. New studies now highlight touch therapy as a way to combat medical conditions such as osteoarthritis, depression, fibromyalgia and more.
Why Is Touch So Important?
Study after study indicates that touch has a beneficial effect on our perception of pain, treatment of disease, and emotional and physical development.
"Touch is important for survival itself. We're meant to be touched. It's part of our inherent genetic development," says massage therapist Elliot Greene of Silver Spring, MD, past president of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA). Yes, touch feels good, but exactly why it's so inherent in our ability to develop normally goes deeper.
Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD, author of Coyote Medicine (see Resources section below) and program director at the Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, has some ideas. First, it's been shown that after a touch therapy, such as massage, there's a reduction in the action of the hypothalamic area of the brain, which controls the so-called "fight or flight" response. The body's level of stress hormones decreases and the level of endorphins increases, leading to a minimized perception of pain and a greater feeling of well-being.
At the same time, the muscles being touched or massaged relax as well. "I suspect it's both a local effect of a relaxation response, and the brain kicking in and saying, 'Okay, I don't feel threatened; I feel good,'" says Dr. Mehl-Madrona.
In addition, if the touch comes from someone you have a positive bond with, like a friend, spouse or other loved one, you get the enhanced emotional experience of a greater sense of love and security. This is why a parent's touch or embrace can make children relax, providing the feeling that all is right with the world, even if they've been harmed or scared.
"Rubbing the 'boo-boo' does something physically, but it does something emotionally as well," says massage therapist Greene. "[Touch] is a subtle form of communication between people."
Treatment of Disease
Because of the positive overall results that touch has on the body, researchers have investigated using touch as a treatment for a variety of medical complaints. "In almost every study done on touch, there's been a beneficial effect," says Dr. Mehl-Madrona.
For instance, in a 1998 study on the efficacy of touch for improving functional ability in elders with degenerative arthritis, researchers at the University of Wisconsin (Eau Claire) discovered that touch improved pain, tension, mood, satisfaction and hand function.
Research conducted at St. Margaret Memorial hospital in Pittsburgh showed that another type of touch therapy, called "therapeutic touch," in which practitioners move their hands above the surface of the body and barely touch the skin, eased the pain of osteoarthritis. The study's lead researcher, Andrea Gordon, MD, hypothesizes that this type of touch may stimulate the body's energy field in a way similar to acupuncture.
Therapeutic touch is an intentionally directed process of energy exchange during which the practitioner uses the hands as a focus to facilitate the healing process. It is a contemporary interpretation of several ancient healing practices. According to the Nurse Healers-Professional Associates International, "Therapeutic touch is a scientifically based practice founded on the premise that the human body, mind, emotions and intuition form a complex, dynamic energy field. The human energy field is governed by pattern and order. In its most healthy state the field is balanced, however, in a disease state, the energy is characterized by imbalance and disorder."
Dr. Mehl-Madrona says that massage and other touch therapies are thought to have a positive impact on autism and attention deficit disorder (ADD) in children, resulting in greater relaxation and less acting out. He has also researched the effect of touch on asthma and uterine fibroids, both of which, he reports, seem to respond well, at least anecdotally. Dr. Mehl-Madrona sees touch therapy as one of the treatment methods that anyone with a chronic illness should consider. "There's clearly no harm that can come from it," he says.
Finding a Practitioner
While it's fine to get a massage from your spouse or friend, using touch to treat chronic conditions is probably best handled by a professional. Practitioners in the fields of touch and energy therapies, such as massage, Reiki, acupressure, therapeutic touch and the like, have training and experience and probably can help you hone in on the most effective way to treat any particular complaints you might have.
That's not to discount the benefits associated with day-to-day touching by your friends and family. Doubters need look no further than a mother's instinctive ability to calm her infant to know that touching by a "layperson" can have an immediate positive effect.
Making Touch a Part of Your Life
As we spend more time at the computer, in the office, or on business travel, we have increased stress and fewer opportunities for physical contact. Even when people are face-to-face, concerns about sexual harassment and inappropriate touching can make people overly cautious and reluctant to touch each other. As a result, many of us may find ourselves starved for ordinary, casual touch from our acquaintances.
One simple way to improve your quality of life is to incorporate more touch into your daily activities. Something as simple as hugging family and friends hello and goodbye can help put them—and you—in a better frame of mind and may even provide a boost to physical health as well. And with virtually no negative side effects, a good dose of touching may be just what the doctor ordered.
The American Massage Therapy Association
Dr. Mehl-Madrona's website
Organization of Therapeutic Touch
Last reviewed September 2005 by Steven Bratman, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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