Within the broad field of complementary medicine, lies profound practices that use touch to treat. Touch is a common daily behaviour which exists to support, comfort, soothe and heal a range of physiological and psychological problems.
How does touch work to create these reactions and effects?
Anecdotally, we could argue that patient reports and comments concerning how they were touched and the power of the touch, are sufficient to support the use of touch, though this may be scientifically problematic. More recently, there has been an increased drive to research the therapeutic effects of touch in an attempt to better connect emotion of touch with physiological change. In so doing, research has enabled a new approach to understanding, and relating, the benefits of touch to healing and health management.
According to Professor Edzard, some believe the power of touch is all down to the placebo effect. “If you touch your partner they feel relaxed, but if someone else touches they may not feel as relaxed,” taking this further, he argues, “that is very much mind over matter. It has nothing to with the sensations of being touched, it is the expectation and the context of the intervention, rather than the specific effect of that intervention.”
While touch is used extensively for stress and anxiety and in palliative care, research is now increasingly focusing on whether it can impede the progress of a number of diseases, including depression and cancer.
Research examining the healing effects of touch is concerned with the question of whether touch can boost the immune system and improve the body’s natural defenses against the disease.
While research such as this may suggest beneficial effects, the mechanisms that could be involved are far from clear. One of the most common findings from research, including a study at the Institute of Neurological Sciences in Glasgow, is that touch lowers heart rate and blood pressure. But how? Work at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, may provide an answer. It has shown that touch and massage can cut levels of stress hormones, which have been implicated in increasing the risk of a number of diseases. Touch many also increase levels of melatonin and of the feel-good hormone, serotonin.
Researchers at Ohio State University have found that psychological stress can increase the blood levels of hormones that then interfere with the delivery of cytokines, key immune system elements, to the site of an injury. The result, they say, is a slowing down of the wound healing process.
How does touch impact emotion?
Can being touched by a loved one be therapeutic, or is it simply a perception of what love and relaxation has come to mean to those being touched? Research from DePauw University in Indiana shows that people can communicate several distinct emotions through touch alone, including anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Accuracy rates ranged from 48 per cent to 83 per cent, comparable with those found in studies of emotions shown in faces and voices. “The evidence indicates that humans can communicate several distinct emotions through touch.”
What it suggests, too, is that touch is a much more sophisticated tool than previously thought. It could also explain why different trials on the therapeutic effects of touch can get differing results. It may be that touch works, but that it needs the right person, in the right mood, doing the touching.
Consider how a simple form of touch i.e. a hug may work to bring about these emotional changes:
- Hugging your partner could lower his or her blood pressure.
- Researchers have found that in younger women, the more hugs they get, the lower their blood pressure.
- Researchers at the University of North Carolina who investigated 69 pre-menopausal women showed that those who had the most hugs had a reduced heart rate.
- Exactly what could be responsible is not clear, but the psychiatrists who carried out the work also found that blood levels of the hormone oxytocin were much higher in the women who were hugged the most.
- Other research finds that oxytocin is released during social contact and that it is associated with social bonding, while a study at Ohio State University shows that when it is put into wounds in animals, the injuries heal much more quickly.
- Work at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences suggests that oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects, including reduction in blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol: “It increases pain thresholds and stimulates various types of positive social interaction, and it promotes growth and healing.”
As we celebrate massage and recognise its value in promoting touch, so too do we acknowledge the limitations and concerns that touch may bring.
Within a therapeutic setting, massage is instrumental is enabling the manipulation of soft tissue, by interacting with a myriad of physiological processes and systems. Depth and purpose of touch works to influence our emotional states about receiving touch and by stimulating the parasympathetic neural connection to aid relaxation.
What is seen as healing touch is not always perceived by the brain as such. For massage therapists, who use touch for healing, it is important to continue the research into how and why touch influences health, and what types of touch are deemed useful in the management of health issues.
The use of touch in therapy is best summarised by the words of John Powell who wrote: “It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.”
about the author
Earle Abrahamson is an internationally published author, scholar, registered therapist, psychologist, educator and teaching fellow as well as Chair of the Massage Training Institute. Earle has extensive experience in sports massage therapy and was invited to be part of the medical team for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games as well as the World Athletic and Para-athletics 2017 Games. Earle has a passion for both teaching and clinical practice and has used and studied a wide range of techniques and teaching methods. Earle, together with Jennie Parke Matheson, runs Hands-on Training, a professional therapy school established to teach and develop students and practitioners.
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