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For the Best Pain Relief, Give Someone a Hug

For the Best Pain Relief, Give Someone a Hug

A study suggests that the human touch can help a person in pain feel better.

Some days, all you need to feel better is a giant hug, and science agrees. Research scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Haifa in Israel set out to show that the powers of human touch can help ease pain. In their study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 22 committed heterosexual couples, 23 to 32 years old, were tracked before and after the woman was exposed to mild pain.

The researchers found the couple’s brain waves fell out of sync when the woman experienced pain...and back in sync when they held hands. The brain-syncing touch eased the woman’s perception of pain.

So-called “interpersonal synchronization” happens when people who are close mirror one another’s physiology. Researchers say that pain can interrupt interpersonal synchronization between couples. But amazingly, touch restores it. Hugs, gentle massage, holding hands and simple gestures of touching affection between partners can help a person in pain feel better.

Subsequent tests of the male partner's level of empathy revealed that the more empathetic he was to her pain, the more their brain activity synced. And the more synchronized their brains are, the more her pain subsided.

How exactly can coupling brain activity kill pain? More studies are needed to find out. But empathetic touch can make a person feel understood, which in turn could activate pain-killing reward mechanisms in the brain.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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