Holding hands is more than just a gesture of love. New research has found that when a woman holds hands with an empathetic partner, her pain goes away and the two hearts and respiratory rates sync.
After his wife gave birth to his daughter, lead study author Pavel Goldstein came up with the study idea.
“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 said in a press release. “I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”
The study observed 22 couples that were long-term, heterosexual and ages 23 to 32 years old. The couples endured a series of tests inspired by the delivery room dynamic Goldstein experienced.
The males observed while the females were the pain targets of the study. The couples sat together without touch, sat together holding hands, or sat in separate rooms while their heart rates were monitored.
The same situations were repeated a second time, with the woman exposed to a heat pain on her arm for two minutes. The couples’ heart rates and breathing rates only synchronized if they were able to hold hands, but weren’t in line when they weren’t able to touch.
“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples,” Goldstein said. “Touch brings it back.”
The study suggested that the emphatic response of males communicated with the females during the experiment. The study said that the information supported a previous study that demonstrated people can identify various emotions, including love and sympathy, from the experience of being touched.
It’s also possible that the woman communicated her inability to feel pain back to the man, the study added. The touch of a partner could be able to improve the quality of non-verbal physiological communication between partners, especially when one of them is experiencing pain.
“Apparently, skin to skin touch is important for pain reduction, which may explain people’s preference for social touch,” the study said. “Moreover, touch activates reward circuits in the brain. Indeed, skin-to-skin touch has been shown to activate the reward system, which results in pain reduction both in animals and in humans.”
The phenomenon behind skin-to-skin touch probably stemmed from evolutionary roots, the study suggested. For example, non-human primates spend a significant amount of time grooming, regardless of hygiene need, that results in an opioid release as well as pain and stress reductions.
Researchers said touch can regulate physiological coupling during pain, suggesting that interpersonal coupling is affected by various contextual social cues. This could explain why massage and breathing coaching from partners can decrease negative moods, anxiety and pain as well as shorten labors, hospital stays and decrease postpartum depression.
“The more empathic the partner and the stronger the analgesic effect, the higher the synchronization between the two when they are touching,” Goldstein said.
Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.