Frequent, Personalized Physical Touch Can Ease Pain, Anxiety: Study


A warm embrace, a gentle caress, a comforting hand—these tender acts of physical touch may seem like simple gestures, but a new study suggests they are vital for our health and happiness.

In an analysis of over 200 studies, researchers have found wide-ranging benefits that human contact can provide, from easing pain and anxiety to boosting the growth of fragile newborns.

From Hugs to Massage Therapy

The results of the meta-analysis were published in Nature Human Behavior.

Researchers from Germany and the Netherlands examined a total of 212 studies that combined data from nearly 13,000 infants, children, and adults. These studies compared people who experienced physical touch during experiments to those who did not.

The physical touch varied, including person-to-person, person-to-animal, person-to-object, and even person-to-robot interactions.

One of the studies reviewed indicated that a daily 20-minute gentle massage for six weeks decreased aggressiveness and stress levels in elderly people with dementia.

A clinical trial, albeit small, study found that students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder experienced improved moods and longer-term classroom behavior after receiving 20-minute massage therapy sessions twice a week.

A research article, published in PLOS ONE, suggests that hugging can help reduce the fight-or-flight panic felt by a person experiencing a panic attack.

Nuances of Successful Touch Therapy

The research team found that the frequency of touch was more important than the duration.

“Increasing the duration of individual sessions did not improve health effects,” the researchers wrote. “In fact, we found some indications of negative relationships in adults for cortisol and blood pressure.”

This is likely due to overstimulating the sympathetic nervous system, which can engage the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands, according to the paper.

Very few touch therapies lasted less than five minutes, leaving it “unclear whether very short interventions have the same effect” as a 20-minute massage.

The type of touch also tended to drive the health benefits more than the duration. For example, a touch on the head was found to be more beneficial than a touch on the torso or arm.

The identity of the person providing the touch therapy only mattered for infants. For adults and children, knowing the person did not influence the health benefits. But for infants, touch from a parent was more beneficial than touch from medical staff.

Human-to-human touch was the most effective for driving health benefits. Robotic touch, introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic “to accommodate the need for touch in individuals with small social networks,” such as those who were isolated or institutionalized, was not as effective in improving mental health as human-to-human touch.

However, some human-to-object touch, like cuddling a stuffed animal or soft blanket, did offer support and improve well-being, and the researchers suggested this should be explored further.

Important Notice: This article was also published at by Amie Dahnke where all credits are due.


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