Health & Wellness Articles

The Healing Power of Touch

How Physical Contact Improves Your Health

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It's common sense that a hug at a stressful time, a handshake after an important meeting or just cuddling at the end of the day help us relax, leaving behind negativity and worry. Now researchers are investigating whether this feel-good energy has an impact on our well-being. Are there health benefits to touch?
 
When we experience friendly, affectionate touch, our bodies release oxytocin, which is sometimes called the love hormone. Oxytocin's effects include lowering blood pressure, decreasing the stress-related hormone cortisol and increasing pain tolerance. It is released through friendly touch, including contact between breastfeeding moms and their babies, cuddling couples and even pets and their owners.
 
A 2006 study even showed that women experienced less pain from an expected, mild shock when they were allowed to hold a stranger's hand—and they experienced the least pain from the shock when holding a partner's hand.
 
The Benefits of Bodywork
Studies suggest a number of ways touch can help us stay healthy. Massage, for example, has been shown to lower blood pressure, slow heart rate and even help premature babies gain weight. Although the mechanism by which massage helps isn't perfectly understood, researchers are beginning to pinpoint conditions it helps, including knee pain caused by osteoarthritis, low-back pain and neck pain.
 
By increasing the amount of touch, massage harnesses the health-promoting effects of oxytocin, along with reducing anxiety and promoting a general sense of well-being. And massage after a tough workout can help prevent stiffness and soreness the next day.
 
Adding Touch to Your Day
Without thinking about it, some people can go hours, days or even weeks without any physical contact in their lives. Adding touch to your day is a simple way to harness its health-maximizing effects of less stress, pain management and a healthier body and mind.
 
Remember that touch doesn't only have to mean being touched; giving touch in healthy ways, from a hug to a handshake to a pat on the back, benefits you—and the person on the receiving end. And you don't have to be in a relationship to do it. Even a quick touch like a high-five (for those friends who hate to hug) can be beneficial.

Looking for your daily oxytocin boost?  Try the tips below:

  • Cuddle. You don't have to talk or gaze deeply into someone's eyes, but you can cuddle with your partner, child or pet.
  • Hug hello (and goodbye for that matter). Greet friends and family with a quick embrace to maximize touch in your day.
  • Find Fido. Touch doesn't have to be person to person. Use your down time to groom or pet your dog or let your cat nap in your lap as you make phone calls.
  • Jump in bed. Having more sex will increase your touch time, and time spent between the sheets can positively impact your relationship, too.  
  • Schedule a massage. Penciling in a session with a trusted therapist will leave you relaxed and refreshed.
  • Try a solo massage. Using lotion or massage oil, relieve neck, arm, leg and scalp tension using the tips of your fingers to massage in a circular motion. Self-massage tools, such as canes (to massage your back) or kneading tools can help with hard-to-reach spots or tough knots.
  • Get classy. Yoga and Pilates classes offer hands-on adjustments from qualified instructors that can help strengthen your core and provide a dose of touch.
  • Hold hands. Don't wait for someone to initiate it—go for it yourself! This simple gesture can bring the spark back to a long-time relationship, add some sizzle to a new one, and even show someone special (your child, parent, grandparent, sibling or best friend) that you care.
  • Get a pedicure. Snag a snazzy new nail color and a serving of healthy touch.
  • Pat someone on the back. Congratulate friends and co-workers on their accomplishments with a celebratory pat on the back.

From reducing blood pressure to flooding us with positive emotions, touch is an easy add-in to your day that can have powerful health benefits. With a little thought, you'll find countless ways to touch the lives of others through this meaningful form of connection.
 
Sources
National Institutes of Health. "The Power of Love," accessed April 4, 2013. newsinhealth.nih.gov

National Institutes of Health. "Massage Therapy," accessed on April 4, 2013. newsinhealth.nih.gov

University of Virginia. "High-quality marriages help to calm nerves," accessed on April 4, 2013. www.eurekalert.org

Baker, Kathy. "Study shows frequent massage sessions boost biological benefits," accessed on April 4, 2013. news.emory.edu

Keltner, Dacher. "Hands on Research: The Science of Touch," accessed on April 4, 2013. greatergood.berkeley.edu

National Institutes of Health. "Massage Therapy," accessed on April 4, 2013. nccam.nih.gov
 
Weerapong P, Hume PA, Kolt GS. "The mechanisms of massage and effects on performance, muscle recovery and injury prevention," accessed on April 4, 2013. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

Uvnas-Moberg K, Petersson M. "Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing ," accessed on April 4, 2013. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

Field, Tiffany. "Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: A review," accessed on April 4, 2013. www.sciencedirect.com

 

 
 


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Member Comments

  • What an informative and helpful article. Thank you so much.
  • good info thanks
  • After my mom passed away, my doctor wrote a prescription for a service animal. It took about 10 months before I found Misty. She has been my companion. It helps my depression.
  • One of the joys of working with children is that hugs are easy to come by but, better yet, they seem to sense when a touch is needed but a hug would be too much. Sometimes it's a hand laid gently on the shoulder. Sometimes its a brush against the arm just acknowledging they see the need.
  • I was not raised to be a hugger so was pretty uncomfortable with it - until I went through a crisis in my life and people consoled me with touch! What an awesome feeling that is (even a pat on the hand or shoulder)! I am sensitive to some people's need for personal space but I'm all for giving hugs if anyone is receptive.
  • This would be great for someone close to my heart. They have been feeling down. And now I know how to cheer them up
  • I am a hugger only to very close friends and family. For the most part I will touch a shoulder or take their hand! I wish I were more of a hugger, because sometimes a person does just need a hug. I have four dogs, a cat and a very loving horse. I hug them often and they, in their own way, hug me back!
  • I live in the far northeast. Here hugs mostly aren't given. If you've been away from family, friends or are leaving for awhile,... there will be hugs. Its rare anyone hugs someone they do not know. However I belong to a congregation in which many of us have known each other for a long time and so some of us are huggers. Even when we gather for larger gatherings,,, .where there are many congregations,, you see many hugging.

    Years ago I was in a very deepl, dark depression. I'd to the congregation 2 maybe more times a week. I had been told hugging helps. So I started to be a "hugger" and YES It DID HELP !

    Yupers I am now a HUGGER !! NOT though to strangers.
  • I cannot understand why some people are so hostile to the idea of a hug but that's just them . I used to belong to a program that had mixed sexes and often at the mid point of the meeting when we stopped to get coffee the men would often hug each other there was no shame or anything. Generally you can tell if a person is receptive or not. In other cultures people will often walk together holding hands even men.
  • FOXGLOVE999
    I reread the article, and it doesn't suggest touching strangers without consent.

    Anyway, my dogs have been a lifesaver for me with regard to this. My children are grown now, so I don't get cuddle time with them anymore. My husband and I are separated. And I'm something of a misanthrop. They are using dogs at universities during exams, and hospital cancer wards to reduce stress. Petting a dog can be a great stress reducer.
  • I was very disappointed with this posting and the responses..not what I expected from Spark.
    In 2014, encouraging touch of any kind (other than hand shake) with non family is inappropriate and potentially criminal.

    NO HUGS ARE NOT GOOD FOR EVERYONE.
    My partner is a therapist, and I am an adult educator... This article is misguided... And uninformed to legal issues and professional behavior
  • If you are not related to me, an attempted hug might leave you with a black eye. Seriously; it may be healthy for you, but it's ire-raising for me.

    All you huggers need to please keep this in mind.
  • I believe vitamin H (hugs) can heal a lot of things. One thing I've found they don't heal is smiling, it justs make smiling worse (for most people). My husband's company is small (eight employees) and if I go into the office with him you can see the smiles begin because most of the guys say "alright, we get our vitamin H today". The one's that don't feel comfortable (which are only two) just smile and say "good morning, hope you have a good day" and stand in the doorway instead of coming into the office I use. You have to take a que from other people as to how they feel about hugging, being alert to reactions from watching the others get a hug is a good indicator of how another person feels about hugs. I desensitize them with a pat on the shoulder, a hand on their arm for a moment, or some other small touch, it may be as small as a few extra words and soon they are inside the office and smiling even though they may not be huggable yet.
  • Thanks for sharing
  • I think given someone a hug is great. You don't know what that person have been through for the day and a hug will do them good. And also telling a person you love them is great as well.

About The Author

Robin Donovan Robin Donovan
Robin Donovan is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer and magazine journalist with experience covering health, medicine, science, business, technology and design.

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