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The Healing Touch

Posted on March 16, 2012 | No Comments on The Healing Touch

In today’s busy hospital, there are patients who can’t help but feel like just a number. They sit in waiting rooms among others with the same plight for hours, only to be guided through a maze of hallways to some small room in the back to have a genuinely caring and friendly, albeit brief, doctor’s visit. Modern medicine has allowed machines and state-of-the-art medical equipment to be a detached, if indifferent, substitute for good, old-fashioned patient-physician contact.

In an entry, Georgetown University infectious diseases pediatrician, Dr. ltzhak Brook shares his experience in discovering he had been diagnosed with hypopharyngeal cancer. Visiting his internist to break the news, he writes of how the hug they shared moved him, “It was the power of a caring, human touch… I had never been hugged by a medical caregiver. Nor had I given a hug to a patient… Yet at that moment, I learned there may be situations in medical practice where the power of a hug eclipses everything else one can offer.”

Inherent in the art of healing, is touch. We’ve all heard that laughter is ‘the best medicine,’ but the stimulation from simple physical contact has its own benefits, too. Dr. Brook continues, “In fact, there is scientific evidence that human touch can generate oxytocin and endorphins, which ameliorate pain and create a feeling of well-being.”

Indeed, a good hug can give you a boost of energy, bringing more positivity to your otherwise stressful day. It’s like a miracle drug – it’s all-natural, has no side effects, and has no expiration date. Professor of Cognitive Neurosciences at Liverpool University Dr. Francis McGlone and his team of experts discovered what are called “C fibers,” a part of the nervous system which react to touch by stimulating pleasure.

Professor McGlone says that certain areas of the body experience more perceived pain than others even with ‘lesser stimuli’ because there are more C fibers located there (for instance, a speck of sand in one’s eye tends to be more aggravating than, say, diving full force into the sand during a game of beach volleyball). He goes on to say, “we’ve been building evidence for another role of C fibers in the skin that are not pain receptors, but are pleasure receptors. There is another sensory nerve fiber system in human skin that appears to code for the pleasant and affiliative aspects of touch we are all familiar with, such as when grooming or being cuddled.”

This comforting feeling of being hugged as kids by our parents when we get hurt, or when we rub the affected area after an accidental bump is part of our instinctive reaction to help ease the pain. Here are a few ways that you can achieve a healthier, happier you just by touching or being touched:

Cross your arms: Researchers at University College, London found that simply crossing your arms after injuring the hand helps to ease the agony. They found that folding your arms somehow tricks your brain’s pain receptors and dampens pain signals because the right side of the brain controls movement in the left side of the body and vice versa.

Hold hands with your partner: In a study by psychologist Karen Gwen of the School of Medicine at the University of Carolina-Chapel Hill, 100 adults with either their spouses or long-term partners were asked to hold hands while watching a short 10-minute video and then hug for 20 seconds afterwards while another group of 85, watched the same video by themselves. Afterwards, both groups were asked to spend a few minutes talking about some recent event that either made them angry or stressed. The group who watched the movie alone were found to have both their systolic (upper) blood pressure reading and diastolic (lower) reading increase by a significant amount, the former by more than double the rise seen in the group of couples. The heart rate of the solo viewers also averaged more than 10 beats per minute higher than the couples group.

Stroke your pet: If you aren’t in a relationship, having a pet around could help you relieve some stress. In one experiment, patients who had just received knee or hip replacements were able to halve the pain-killing medicine they were on by simply stroking a pet. Enjoying the company of our furry friends can help lower levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, in the body.

Hug a hot water bottle: This relatively unknown method of pain relief can really help women suffering from period pain or tummy cramps. British scientists found thermos bottles containing water temperatures exceeding 40°C, trigger internal heat receptors in the body that help to block pain signals from reaching the brain.

Get a massage: Since when has anyone turned down a massage? Therapeutic massage sessions have long been a favorite among vacationers and workaholics alike. Nothing relaxes more than your favorite shiatsu or hilot at a nearby spa or massage parlor. The worries and stresses of life just seem to melt away.

Just like the long-established idea that pain is a necessary sense in order to survive, the other sensation we derive from touch—pleasure, such as a hug—is just as essential for healthy social, psychological, and physical development. No denying it, we could all use a little TLC.

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