2 Feb 2018

Holding hands a way to ease pain, study finds

Holding hands with someone you love helps reduce perception
of pain. Photo: Thinkstock
by Anne Crawford

Holding hands – an intimate moment, a gesture of reassurance or a show of friendship and connection.

Now a Monash University study demonstrates that this simple gesture can have an analgesic effect on stress and pain, supporting the role of social connections in managing pain in clinical settings.

PhD student Xianwei Che and others at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre (MAPrc) conducted an experiment exposing healthy adults to the threat of pain while they held the hand of a close or ‘significant’ other, a stranger or no one at all.

The 18 participants experienced a six-second countdown to an electric shock as their heart rate and brain waves were measured, and were asked afterwards to rate their perception of the pain.

Participants holding hands with someone close to them experienced significantly less pain than those who didn’t hold hands at all, or who had held hands with a stranger in between the two results. The increase in their heart rate as the shock approached was also less, as was the level of stress measured by theta oscillations (brain waves) recorded using an electroencephalogram or EEG. Further, these neural changes were found to occur in regions of the brain involved in the processing of threat and pain.

“In total, our study shows that holding hands with a significant other can really make us feel less threatened or stressed about painful stimuli and changes the perception of this threat, which then translates to pain reduction,” Xianwei Che said. “It can tranquilise the physiological arousal to upcoming painful stimulation.”

The findings support research emphasising the role of social connections in maintaining good health or in recovery to illness, he said.

Research elsewhere has shown that social support in various forms has analgesic effects for pain patients, as well as in experimental settings with healthy people, and can alleviate chronic pain. 

A study published last month conducted at Colorado University, Boulder, US – recreating the idea of a man holding a romantic partner's hand during childbirth – found that holding hands could significantly reduce the sensation of pain when heat was applied to the woman's forearm.

This MAPrc study adds to the literature by using EEG and heart rate measures, and the novel technique of using a six-second threat of pain leading up to the painful stimulation which teased out the threat of pain as a factor.

Xianwei Che, who is in the Central Clinical School, was supervised by MAPrc’s Dr Bernadette Fitzgibbon and is now collecting data in another study investigating whether images of loved ones have a similar effect on pain.

Che X, Cash R, Fitzgerald P, Fitzgibbon BM. The Social Regulation of Pain: Autonomic and Neurophysiological Changes Associated with Perceived Threat. J Pain. 2017 Dec 20. pii: S1526-5900(17)30816-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2017.12.007. [Epub ahead of print]


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