Mind & Body

For an All-Natural Painkiller, Try Holding Your Partner's Hand

Human touch is important. Massages help us relax, hugs comfort us, and it feels like almost every pop song is called "Touch My Body" or something. New research shows just how important touch can be. When you're in pain, holding hands with your romantic partner makes the discomfort less intense.

The Hand-Holding Experiment

In a recent study, researchers studied 22 straight couples placed in various situations for two-minute intervals. Sometimes they were holding hands; sometimes they were in the same room, but not touching; and sometimes they were in adjacent rooms. There was also a pain dimension: In some situations, the woman in the couple had heat applied to her forearm, designed to produce a 60 on a pain scale of 0 to 100.

The researchers chose the woman as the unchanging "pain target" because previous research showed they elicit more empathy. It also echoed a typical birth scene, which was fitting since the entire study started in a delivery room. Lead author Pablo Goldstein had the idea for it while his wife was giving birth to their daughter.

"My wife was in pain, and all I could think was, 'What can I do to help her?' I reached for her hand and it seemed to help," he said in a statement. "I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?"

He and his co-authors thought there could be a link between pain and "interpersonal synchronization," a physical phenomenon where we unconsciously sync our heartbeats, breathing, and brain activity with another person's. You also might notice that when you're walking with a friend, your footsteps sync up — that's interpersonal synchronization, too. To test their hypothesis, the researchers tracked both partners' heartbeat, breath, and brainwaves through each situation.

They found that synchronization on all metrics was highest when the two partners were holding hands and the woman was in pain, and furthermore, that holding hands with her partner reduced the woman's discomfort. Instead of the man "feeling her pain," as the cliché goes, she felt and absorbed his lack of pain.

Is Holding Hands the New Advil?

We wouldn't throw out your painkillers yet, but these results definitely suggest there's a physiological reason we hold hands, especially with people who are suffering. They also suggest that partners can be of real service during the birth process.

What remains unclear is how this all works. The authors think couples might be synchronized at some baseline level whenever they're together. Pain disrupts that status quo, though. In the study, syncing between not-touching couples who were in the same room dropped off when the woman felt pain. That could be because pain turns your attention inward, towards your own suffering. Holding hands — or perhaps any physical touch — seemed to revive and intensify that baseline synchronization.

That heightened synchronization could be a pain reliever, but it could also be a symptom of pain relief or just a random thing that correlates with pain relief. The two factors also correlate with a third factor — the man's level of empathy for the woman, assessed via questionnaire. More empathetic men experienced higher synchronization when the woman was in pain, and that resulted in further pain reduction for her. It will take more research to hash out how and why all this works, but a sense of simultaneous emotional and physical connection sure seems to be a heck of a drug.

Get stories like this one in your inbox each morning. Sign up for our daily email here.

For more about the power of touch, check out "Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind" by David J. Linden. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale. 

Is Love All You Need?

Written by Mae Rice July 20, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.