A neuroscientist reveals a surprising, completely natural way to reduce pain

Millions of people suffer from chronic pain and many of them take painkillers to handle the pain, but there is a simple, more human act to alleviate pain and it’s proven by science.

Around 100 million adults in the United States are affected by chronic pain – pain that lasts for months or years on end. It is one of the country’s most underestimated health problems.

Chronic pain is traditionally treated with painkillers, but as we all know, that approach brings its own problems as the current opioid crisis shows.

Writing for Aeon, Pavel Goldstein, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder reports on new research that shows personal touch can reduce pain.

Most pain research concentrates on a single, isolated person in pain, but outside of the laboratory, people are surrounded by other people. These social interactions are now being included in the study of pain, according to Goldstein. In addition, recently developed techniques have made it possible to monitor the physiological activity of several people simultaneously.

“This allows us to measure the level of synchrony between people as they take part in extreme or prosaic social situations, with some surprising findings,” says Goldstein.

Synchrony refers to things that happen at the same time.

“Participants and spectators of a fire-walking ritual were found to have synchronous heartbeats. So do people watching emotional movies together, choir singers singing together, and romantic couples gazing at each other and engaged in imitation tasks in the lab.”

The scientist observing this wondered if there might be a way for such physiological coupling to help with pain relief.

They found the answer lies in human touch.

Goldstein and his colleagues Irit Weissman-Fogel and Simone Shamay-Tsoory at the University of Haifa recruited 23 romantic, heterosexual couples to participate in the experiment.

“The women received pain stimuli under varying conditions. First, alone, without their partners, and then with their partners, but without physical contact. In the third condition, the women held hands with their partners while receiving pain and, in the fourth, they held hands with a stranger.

“This study showed that the third condition – partner’s touch – resulted in enhanced pain-reduction in comparison with other conditions. Moreover, women with highly empathetic partners reported increased pain-reduction associated with that partner’s touch,” writes Goldstein.

This is the important takeaway: It seems that that touch can transfer a partner’s empathy, thereby decreasing pain.

Your empathy with your partner’s pain literally travels right from you through touch to your partner and acts as a painkiller. Isn’t that magic!

In order to understand the physiological bases of their findings, the scientists conducted an additional study that also measured synchrony.

This time, 22 (different) romantic couples were invited to participate. Throughout the experiment, the scientists calculated physiological synchrony by recording heartrate and respiration in each partner.

“There were four study conditions: holding hands, with pain; holding hands, without pain; not holding hands, with pain; and without either pain or holding hands. (Pain was again administered only to the females.)

The scientists found there was no synchrony when pain was administered without touch but when partners were touching synchrony between them increased in both heartrate and respiration.

In addition, those couples that reported the most pain relief also showed higher levels of physiological synchrony, as did the couples with a highly empathic male partner.

The scientists followed this experiment up with a study of inter-brain synchrony.

This study highlighted the painkilling effect of synergistic touch and empathy. These results could help with acute pain conditions, such as labor pains.

In fact, it has been shown that the presence of a partner during delivery is helpful in 60 per cent of cases and that the father’s presence helped to make all aspects of childbirth a positive experience.

Future studies might concentrate on the clinical implication of these findings, looking at the effectiveness of both human touch and empathy training.

Touch between humans has important social and emotional implications. Skin-to-skin touch is crucial for the development of premature infants. Touch helps to regulate stress responses in adults, enhances trust, and provides comfort and emotional wellbeing.

No wonder it’s found to be effective in pain relief.

Goldstein admits that it’s unlikely that these research findings will solve the problem of painkillers, but poses that it does propose a very simple pain treatment with an indispensable side effect: connecting with other people.


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