The importance of touch


published April 21, 2007

From eons:

Hugs and massages may be key to your health and well-being

by Sharon Gray, Eons contributor

When The Beatles sang “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” little did they know that they were really appealing for a medical boost. Forty or so years later, science has shown that physical contact improves people’s health as well as their relationships.

Our sense of touch works via sensory receptors in the skin and deeper tissues. They are located in varying density over the body, but most densely in our fingertips. These receptors transmit signals to the spinal cord and brain stem.

“Touch is as important as breathing,” explains Dr. Tiffany Field, director of The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, the world’s first center devoted solely to the study of touch and its application in science and medicine. “Without it, children do not grow and develop.”

In her book, A Natural History of The Senses, author Diane Ackerman describes touch as being “as essential as sunlight… In the absence of touching and being touched, people of all ages can sicken and grow touch-starved.” Field agrees. “Sensory deprivation makes people depressed and immune-compromised, and gives them emotional pain and physical damage,” she says.

The role of oxytocin

Why? Researchers are pointing at a hormone called oxytocin; our bodies release it when we’re touched, and it interacts with dopamine, a brain chemical that makes us feel good. Oxytocin is one of those happy hormones that helps to lower blood pressure and stress levels, and can affect everything from how wounds heal to how much we trust other people.

A University of North Carolina study of the effects of hugging on both partners in 38 couples showed increases in oxytocin levels and reduced levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Interestingly, women recorded greater changes after the hugs, suggesting that their hearts may get more benefit than those of men from tactile demonstrations of love.

An emotional pathway

Skin, the body’s largest organ, allows us to relate sensitively to the world in which we live and gain information on our surroundings. Do you remember Helen Keller? Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, initially broke into the seven-year-old Helen’s world by running cold water over her hand, and then taught her how to communicate by finger-spelling on the palm.

Results of a study conducted by Dr. Matthew Hertenstein at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, imply that touch can also communicate emotion. Trial participants were touched by a stranger they couldn’t see, who had been asked to convey a particular emotion, such as anger, fear, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Amazingly, participants were able to identify each emotion with great accuracy, comparable to that for visual and vocal emotion tests. “Our study is the first to provide rigorous evidence showing that humans can reliably signal love, gratitude and sympathy with touch,” says Hertenstein. “These findings raise the interesting possibility that touch may convey more positive emotions than the face.”

To touch or not to touch

Attitudes about touch and physical contact vary greatly among different cultures.

In India, it’s common to massage babies daily. The skill of Indian head massage is passed down from parent to child and practiced regularly across the generations. In Africa, carrying babies close to the body at virtually all times is the norm.

In France and Italy, men kiss each other on the cheek as a greeting. In most Asian countries, there are no sexual implications when male friends hold hands or drape their arms around each others’ shoulders. In Arab cultures, such gestures denote respect and affection.

However, in many countries, how and where you touch someone can be a minefield. Increased awareness of sexual abuse and harassment have made people more cautious about reaching out to each other. In the US, most school systems have imposed a “no touch” policy for teachers to ward off possible misunderstandings. Physicians rely more and more on high-tech tests and procedures rather than hands-on probing to diagnose illnesses, and workplaces often impose strict guidelines regarding physical contact to protect against molestation claims.

People have grown wary of physical contact with one another, which can lead to a sense of isolation and loneliness. Although as babies we are constantly cuddled, as we age there is less and less physical contact with other people. “Older people are touch-deprived, in part because they are often alone, and in part because their aging skin may not invite touching in the same way that an infant’s skin does,” says Field.

Healing massage

If you see massage as touch therapy, it’s not difficult to understand why Dr. Field’s work at the Touch Research Institute produces such positive benefits. One study looked at adults with Parkinson’s disease who either received massage therapy or practiced progressive muscle relaxation twice a week for five weeks. Members of the massage group consistently received higher physician scores on daily living activities such as bathing, and they reported improved daily functioning and less disturbed sleep.

A current study at the University of Iowa is looking at whether healing touch might be able to boost the immune system of women with advanced cervical cancer and improve the body’s natural defences against the disease.

A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggested that massage therapy might also be a good prescription for people with osteoarthritis. As many as 21 million people in the United States suffer joint pain, stiffness, and physical disability from osteoarthritis, the most commonly reported chronic condition in elderly people. Typically, doctors prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve symptoms, but these can cause unpleasant and even dangerous side effects. Massage therapy relaxes the muscles that support the joint, increases circulation, and promotes lymphatic drainage. For people with osteoarthritis of the knee, one-hour, full-body massages over an eight-week period helped significantly with pain, stiffness, and physical function.

Charismatic powers

Another researcher at California State University in Fullerton has found that touch is an important component of what we call charisma. Waitresses who subtly touch a customer as they return change tend to get a bigger tip; initiating a handshake at a job interview or sales pitch can make you more appealing. You can use this power every day to enhance the lives of others. Make someone’s day by doing something as natural as holding hands as you talk, lightly touching a shoulder, and giving – or receiving – a hug.

The benefits of massage

Research from the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine suggests that touch therapy may be able to:

  • Decrease diastolic blood pressure, anxiety, and cortisol (stress hormone) levels in adults with hypertension.
  • Decrease the occurrence of headaches, sleep disturbances, and distress symptoms, and increase serotonin levels in adults who suffer from migraine headaches.
  • Reduce anxiety and depression and increase the number of natural “killer cells” that attack tumors, in women with breast cancer.
  • Reduce anxiety and stress hormone levels in adults with chronic fatigue syndrome and depressed mood.


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