Grabbing hold of your partner’s hand while they’re in pain really can make them feel better, according to a new study.
When lovers touch, their breathing, and heartbeats synchronize and feelings of discomfort disappear, research has found.
Researchers tested the healing powers of a lover’s touch by asking couples to take part in an experiment where women were subjected to pain.
They found that if her partner was allowed to hold her hand, she reported feeling lower levels of pain than if the couple merely sat next to one another.
Scientists believe that holding hands with a loved one activates an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associates with pain, empathy and heart functioning.
- PEOPLE ‘SUBCONSCIOUSLY SYNC UP’
“The more empathic the partner and the stronger the analgesic [pain relieving] effect, the higher the synchronisation between the two when they are touching,” said Dr Pavel Goldstein, from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The study of 22 couples is the latest in a growing body of research on ‘interpersonal synchronisation,’ the phenomenon in which individuals begin to physiologically mirror the people they’re with.
Scientists have long known that people subconsciously sync their footsteps with the person they’re walking with or adjust their posture to mirror a friend’s during the conversation.
Recent studies also show that when people watch an emotional movie or sing together, their heart rates and respiratory rhythms synchronise.
When leaders and followers have a good rapport, their brainwaves fall into a similar pattern.
And when romantic couples are simply in each other’s presence, their cardiorespiratory and brainwave patterns sync up, research has shown.
- DOES HOLDING YOUR PARTNER’S HAND EASE PAIN?
The new study is the first to explore interpersonal synchronisation in the context of pain and touch.
Researchers hope it can inform the discussion as health care providers seek drug-free pain relief options.
Dr Goldstein came up with the idea after witnessing the birth of his daughter, now four-years-old.
He said: “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. I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”
- HOW WAS THE EXPERIMENT CONDUCTED
Goldstein recruited 22 long-term heterosexual couples, age 23 to 32, and put them through a series of tests aimed at mimicking the delivery room scenario.
Men were assigned the role of observer; women the pain target.
As instruments measured their heart and breathing rates, they either sat together without touching, sat together holding hands or sat in separate rooms.
Then they repeated all three scenarios as the woman was subjected to a mild heat pain on her forearm for 2 minutes.
As in previous trials, the study showed couples synced physiologically to some degree just sitting together.
But when she was subjected to pain and he couldn’t touch her, that synchronisation was severed.
When he was allowed to hold her hand, their rates fell into sync again and her pain decreased.
- ‘EMPATHETIC’ PARTNERS EASE PAIN MORE
“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronisation between couples,” Dr Goldstein said.
“Touch brings it back.”
His previous research found that the more empathy the man showed for the woman, the more her pain subsided during touch.
And the more physiologically synchronised they were, the less pain she felt.
It’s not clear yet whether decreased pain is causing increased synchronicity, or vice versa.
“It could be that touch is a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, or pain-killing, effect,” said Dr Goldstein.
Further research is necessary to figure out how a partner’s touch eases pain.
- HOW DOES A LOVER’S TOUCH AFFECT THE BRAIN?
Dr Goldstein suspects a lover’s touch affects an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with pain perception, empathy, and heart and respiratory function.
The study did not explore whether the same effect would occur with same-sex couples, or what happens when the man is the subject of pain.
Dr Goldstein did measure brainwave activity and plans to present those results in a future study.
He hopes the research will help lend scientific credence to the notion that touch can ease pain.
The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.