In this current world where people are more physically separated from each other yet capable of being digitally connected, the benefits of receiving a comforting touch from someone may be forgotten.
Science has shown how essential touch is to a child’s development. It helps them develop a bond with caretakers or family members as well as receive reassurance that events around them are safe. One of our first forms of communication is through touch and it is an international language.
Touch isn’t just important to babies or children. Adults need it, too. It has been shown to help reduce pain, create a more calming mindset, provide comfort, relieve stress, and more. For many of us, it is instinctual. If we see someone we know who is upset, we may instantly go up to them and put our arm around their shoulders, give them a hug, or just touch their arm.
The benefits of touch are not limited to humans. Animals have displayed a need for touch. When we pet an animal, there is also a positive physiological reaction.
Doctors can also touch appropriately when they are giving particularly difficult news to their patients. This not only comforts the patient but also comforts the doctor. A neurologist has expressed that hugging has proven to be so important in treatment as well.
Touch and Human Development
Most of us are familiar with the importance of touching a newborn. For most parents, it is instinctual to hold and rock their baby, and to touch baby’s hands. For that matter, many women feel compelled to hold others’ babies as well.
The sense of touch is one of the earliest to develop. It starts in the womb. In 2013, a study was released claiming that fetuses begin preparing for the sensation of touch through self-touch of the lower face and mouth. It was believed that this self-touch was an instinctual way of developing the brain to prepare for social interaction, self-soothing, and feeding.
A fetus in the third trimester responds to the mother caressing her stomach by attempting to explore from within. Simultaneously, the fetus’ self-touch decreases at this time.
Sixty-five percent of face-to-face communication between mothers and their baby consists of communication through touch. This touching provides an immediate decrease in stress for them both. Gentle stroking was found to cause babies to smile more often than merely laying a still hand on the infant. Babies as young as nine months showed a decrease in heart rate and more engagement when experiencing touching. Coincidently, parents instinctively touch their babies at a speed, or rate, that is the most pleasurable to the infant.
From infancy through childhood and into adulthood, touch has proven to provide several development milestones essential for thriving:
- Ability for infants to communicate with their parents or caregiver
- Ability for infants to bond
- Teaches toddlers how to stabilize their bodies when learning to walk
- Teaches positive emotions
- More likely to delay immediate gratification
- Increases on-task behavior even by teachers or instructors
- Lessens aggressive behavior and reduces stress
- Increases ability to learn a language
- Supports social engagement
- Increases body awareness and ownership
- Aids sense of self
- Helps with healthy weight gain and growth in infants
- Builds cooperative relationships
A decrease or lack of touching has shown to create:
- More aggressive behavior
- An inability to soothe oneself
- Unexplained pain
- Slower weight gain and growth in infants
- A high sensitivity to touch that makes it unpleasant (such as in autism)
- A higher tendency toward anorexia or anorexia bulimia
- Lack of social skills
- Decrease in communication or language abilities
Types of Touch
There are two types of touch currently recognized.
The first is Discriminatory touch. This is the touch we use to figure out what coins we have in our pocket, if that is our keys that fell in the sofa cushions, etc. It is the sense of touch that tells us the pressure, texture, shape, etc. of an object. This sense is all about tactile sensations.
The second has been called Affective touch or social and emotional touch. It senses slow strokes and pleasure. Both types of touch are recognized by neurons in the skin and create responses in the brain. Affective touch, however, is the only one that not only lights up the portion of your brain that recognizes touch, but also lights up the insular cortex. The insular cortex is part of the limbic system and is responsible for processing emotions.
Affective touching has only recently been studied. The actual neurons responsible for affective touch have only just been discovered. They were first discovered in cats in 1939, but not in humans until the 1990s. These neurons are only found in “hairy” skin, such as your forearms, legs, and back. In comparison, Glaborous skin refers to the palms of your hands and sole of your feet.
Touch as Therapy
As you can see, there are several benefits to touch for human growth and maturity physically, mentally and emotionally. Therefore, it stands to reason that using it as a form of therapy would be considered and researched. Various forms of touch therapy have been studied recently – including massage, acupuncture, acupressure, chiropractic, and light hand therapy or Reiki.
This form of therapy was founded by Tiffany Fields Ph.D. to reduce pain in pregnant women and aid in prenatal depression for the women and spouses. She has even discovered that children with autism respond very well and enjoy massages performed by a parent or a therapist.
Further research has shown that there was more social activation in the brain of autistic children upon slower strokes. It has been shown to help with social abilities and communication. Massage therapy can further help children with autism who suffer from muscle spasms and social anxiety; it helps to decrease seizures, aid in sleep, and act as a great booster for other therapies.
Studies on Alzheimer’s patients have shown massage helps them to relax, emotionally connect with others, and decrease their depression.
Other studies have shown that massage can improve stiffness, pain, range of motion, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Acupuncture and Acupressure
Two related forms of touch therapy are acupuncture and acupressure. Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine whose goal is to correct imbalances in the flow of life energy (chi or qi). It involves inserting fine needles into specific points on the body. Acupressure has the same goal but uses gentle yet deep hand pressure instead.
In 2012, a study detailed results of 29 high-quality acupuncture studies encompassing nearly 18,000 patients. They found acupuncture to relieve pain in several chronic conditions, including osteoarthritis. Another study verified this finding and added that acupuncture excelled at relieving pain associated with osteoarthritis in the knee above standard care or exercise.
This form of therapy has gained popularity in America, with about 60% of Americans believing it to relieve neck and back pain. Chiropractic care is not limited to the neck and back, however. It can adjust wrongly aligned joints and improve the communication of the spine and the nervous system.
Healthcare Research and Quality issued a report in 2010 stating that they found chiropractic care as effective as medication for lower back pain unless you have an active inflammation, fused spine, or osteoporosis in the spine or neck. In the same year, Britain released a study and additionally found chiropractic therapy effective for acute and chronic lower back pain, neck pain, and knee pain associated with osteoarthritis.
Also called light touch therapy, is a Japanese form of therapy. It is believed that healing energy can be transmitted from the therapist to the patient to relieve stress and disease.
Reiki is just starting to gain popularity in America; other than claims from the general public, studies have proven to be too small. Those who use Reiki speak of it helping to reduce pain, anxiety, depression, and aid with sleep.