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The Healing Power of Touch

Young woman massaging her foot on the bed., Healthcare concept.For millennia, physicians relied upon “laying on of the hands” as an important part of healing a patient. These days, it’s generally not the physical exam that establishes the precise diagnosis, but rather a barrage of high-tech imaging and blood tests. Even so, I remind the young doctors in training that doing a good physical exam is still an essential element of patient care. Not only does it give us clues about what might be awry, but it’s also an essential step through which the patient establishes a bond of trust with their care provider.
In centuries past, this healing touch was sometimes all the physicians had to offer, and indeed they relied heavily on the power of placebo to help cure their patients. Yet even today I believe our patients will get better quicker and feel less emotional anguish if we provide reassuring, professional, and compassionate care, which includes laying on of the hands. The power of a placebo, which can amazingly effective, is conferred in direct proportion to the trust the patient has in their care provider. I tell medical students and physicians in training that if you don’t touch your patients, they may not recover as quickly as they should, nor will they fully trust that you genuinely care about them as a person.
Human touch has been shown to have various physiological and psychological benefits, and it has been used as a therapeutic intervention in many cultures and medical practices throughout history. Gentle, affectionate touch, like a hug, can stimulate the release of hormones such as oxytocin that fosters bonding and social support. Touch can also reduce stress, promote relaxation, lower blood pressure and boost the immune system’s ability to fight off disease.
For newborns especially, touch is essential if they are to thrive. When our four children were little, Joan insisted that whenever possible, one of us was holding the baby rather than having him or her sit in a bassinet. My oldest son, Jimmy, was a preemie, born five weeks early. During the last trimester of that pregnancy and for the first six months after delivery, Joan was being treated with radiation therapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was a busy cardiology fellow, and Joan was exhausted, so her mother, Kathleen, came to live with us for the first six weeks after Jimmy was born. He would wake up hungry and crying every couple of hours during the night. Kathleen, who was 75 years old at the time, was an angel about holding and bottle-feeding baby Jimmy, day and night. Touch promotes bonding between the newborn and the parent or caregiver, which is crucial for creating a strong emotional connection and building a secure attachment. It’s been 11 years since Kathleen passed away, but even now she occasionally shows up in Jimmy’s dreams as a reassuring and loving presence who is always there for him.
Sadly, there have been experiments in the remote past where infants were subjected to minimal physical contact to prevent infection. As part of the Hospitalism Study conducted during the 1940s, infants in an orphanage were cared for in a sterile, hospital-like setting in which they received little to no cuddling or affectionate touch and were rarely even held. These babies’ touch deprivation caused developmental delays and emotional distress, and some of them even died of “failure to thrive.” These kinds of studies made it abundantly clear that nurturing/affectionate touch is an essential “nutrient” that must be prioritized when caring for a baby. Although this is also true for adults, touch is often an overlooked need by many people.
Psychologically, affectionate touch can bestow comfort, reassurance, and emotional support, which can have a positive impact on mental and emotional well-being. Touch can also promote a sense of connection and empathy between people and may help to improve communication and trust in therapeutic settings. By the way, affectionate interactions between people and dogs or cats, such as petting or grooming the animal, cuddling, hugging, or receiving kisses (licks) can help boost mood, melt stress, promote relaxation, and lower blood pressure. Joan and I have three dogs and one cat; we are being physically affectionate with them many times during our waking hours.
About once a month I get a professional massage, which feels like such a luxury on my achy muscles, but its benefits go beyond relaxation. At first touch, the heart rate slows and blood pressure falls. The stress hormone, cortisol, drops, and feel-good hormones like serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine rise, leaving the body in a state of relaxed bliss. Massage can reduce anxiety and depression, boost mood, and improve sleep quality, all of which are beneficial for heart and brain health. I often give Joan a foot massage just as she is dozing off in bed. She loves it and says it is good for her soles and her soul. Look for ways to give and receive a more affectionate, wholesome touch; it’s a proven way to strengthen interpersonal bonds and make you healthier and happier.
Overall, touch can be a powerful means of supporting mental and physical health. Whether it’s a hug from a loved one, a massage from a professional, or even a gentle pat on the back, incorporating touch into our lives can have numerous benefits. Of course, it’s important to always ensure that touch is consensual and appropriate and that we respect personal boundaries and preferences.
In Good Health,
James O'Keefe, MD