Holding hands with your romantic partner may ease their physical pain

New research explores the analgesic effect of empathetic touch among heterosexual couples.
Published : March 05, 2018 Updated : March 05, 2018
You gotta really feel her pain, man. Photo: ISTOCK

Holding hands with your partner certainly feels good, but a new study suggests it might do more than give you that warm and fuzzy feeling. 

The research, published in PNAS, finds that holding the hand of a loved one in pain can sync their brain waves, breathing and heart rate with yours, inducing a healing effect. And the more the healthy partner empathizes with their sick mate, the stronger the impact. 

“This paper illustrates the power and importance of human touch,” said Pavel Goldstein, lead study author. 

Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at CU Boulder, said that he was inspired to conduct the research after he was able to lessen his wife’s pain by holding her hand as she went into labor. (If you say so, buddy; we'd like to hear from your wife.)

He and his team of researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder and University of Haifa tested this theory of pain-relief-by-proxy on 22 heterosexual couples ages 23-32 who had been together for at least a year. They monitored the couples’ brain wave activity (via EEG scan) in three different two-minute long scenarios: sitting together, but not touching; sitting together and holding hands; and sitting in separate rooms. They tested each scenario again, after subjecting the women in the couples to mild heat pain on their arms. 

The researchers found that among the couples who held hands while the woman was in pain, the brain waves synced the most. On the other hand, the brain-to-brain coupling was the lowest when the women in pain sat in separate rooms from their partners. In the case of couples sitting next to each other, but not touching, some brain wave syncing was observed. 

A prior experiment, which set up the same scenarios and then monitored the couples’ breathing and heart rates, found the synchronization diminished when the man wasn’t holding his ailing partner’s hand. 

The EEG scans also measured the men’s empathy towards their partner, with the results showing that the greater the empathy, the greater the brain wavelength. This suggests that it’s not just touch, but “empathetic touch,” that has an analgesic effect. 

Goldstein explained that further studies are needed to explore this effect and test it out on a wider range of relationships, such as same-sex couples, parent-child, sibling and platonic dyads. We're also curious if healthy women can, uh, relieve their ailing male partners.

A note to the hetero dudes: "You may express empathy for a partner's pain, but without touch it may not be fully communicated," Goldstein said. 

Hetero ladies, if you're so lucky, get yourself a partner who can literally and figuratively feel your pain —  he might actually make it go away. 

 
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