Study: holding hands relieves pain in suffering partners

Holding Hands Pain Relief

The simply act of holding the hand of a person who is suffering allows you not only to synchronize your breathing and your heart rate with his, but also your brain waves.

A study by a group of  American and Israeli researchers shows that the more comforting a person is and the more empathy they feel for someone who is suffering and holding the hands the latter, the less intense the pain.

In today’s world, we use fewer and fewer physical interactions in our communications. Our study shows the power and importance of human touch.

–Pavel Goldstein, University of Colorado at Boulder

Interpersonal synchronization

This work is in addition to a growing body of research that focuses on the phenomenon of interpersonal synchronization, in which an individuals enter into a kind of physical symbiosis with each other. However, they are the first to focus on the synchronization of brain waves in the context of pain. This new knowledge sheds light on the “analgesic” role that brain-brain coupling can play through touch.

Pavel Goldstein himself experienced interpersonal synchronization at the time of his wife’s delivery. He observed that when he held her hand, her pain eased.

I wanted to check it in the laboratory. Can we really reduce pain by touch, and if so, how?

–Pavel Goldstein, University of Colorado at Boulder

With Israeli colleagues from Haifa University, he recruited 22 heterosexual couples aged 23 to 32, who had been together for at least a year. These couples were subjected to several two-minute scenarios, while the researchers measured their brain activity.

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The scenarios included a situation in which the members of each couple were sitting together without touching each other, one in which they were together holding hands and another where they were in separate rooms. The researchers then repeated the scenarios with a slight heat pain to the woman.

The simple fact of being in the presence of each other, with or without contact, was associated with a certain synchronicity of the brain waves in a wavelength related to focused attention. On the other hand, when they held hands while she was suffering, the cerebral concordance increased further.

Another interesting fact: when the woman was suffering and the man could not touch her, the coupling of their brain waves decreased.

These results corroborate other research that heart rate and respiratory timing disappear when a man can not hold his wife’s hand to relieve pain.

In addition, subsequent tests of the male partner’s level of empathy revealed that the more empathic he was to the pain of his partner, the more their brain activity was synchronized and the more the suffering decreased.

More research is needed to understand how exactly cerebral synchronization with an empathic partner reduces pain. “Further studies will be needed to determine this,” said Goldstein, who explains that empathic touch could help a partner feel understood, which would activate mechanisms associated with reward in the brain and thus lead to pain relief.

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The details of this work are published in the annals of the American Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Paige Driessen

Paige is an Arizona native who loves the outdoor life. She writes about a wide range of topics for The Talking Democrat