Around 100 million adults in the United States are affected by chronic pain that lasts for years on end. It is one of the country’s most underestimated health problems.
The annual cost of managing pain is greater than that of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and the cost to the economy through decreased productivity reaches hundreds of billions of dollars.
Chronic pain’s unremitting presence can lead to a variety of mental health issues, depression above all, which often intensifies pain. And our most common weapon against pain is painkillers which generates its own pain, as the ongoing opioid crisis attests. But must we rely on pharmacology to stave off pain? Perhaps there is a more natural nostrum – partial and insufficient, but helpful nonetheless closer to hand.
Most pain research concentrates on a single, isolated person in pain. This allows researchers to simplify their analyses of pain, which is useful to a point, though it does yield a somewhat distorted view. The problem is that, outside of the laboratory, people are often not isolated
they take part in a social world. Without involving social interactions into the study of pain, we risk ignoring the part that social communication might play.
New techniques have recently made it possible to monitor the physiological activity of several people simultaneously. This allows us to measure the level of synchrony between people as they take part in extreme or prosaic social situations, with some surprising findings. Participants and spectators of a fire walking ritual were found to have synchronous heartbeats.
So do people watching emotional movies together, choir singers singing together, and romantic couples gazing at each other and engaged in imitation tasks in the lab. How can interpersonal synchrony be facilitated? And might there be a way for such physiological coupling to contribute to pain relief? The answer lies in the simplest of human interactions: touch.
Research which is recently conducted by Haifa Irit Weissman-Fogel and Simone Shamay-Tsoory at the University of Haifa suggested that interpersonal touch is an effective way of reducing pain. They recruited 23 romantic, heterosexual couples to participate in the experiment.
The women received pain stimuli under varying conditions. First, alone, without their partners, and then with their partners, but without physical contact. In the third condition, the women held hands with their partners while receiving pain and, in the fourth, they held hands with a stranger.
This study showed that the third condition partner’s touch – resulted in enhanced pain reduction in comparison with others. Moreover, women with highly empathetic partners reported increased pain reduction associated with that partner’s touch.
It seems, then, that this study empirically supports the idea that touch can transfer a partner’s empathy, thereby decreasing pain. And it happens that this finding dovetails with previous research showing that a range of emotions from disgust to love to fear can be effectively communicated solely by means of touch.