Holding Hands to Decrease Pain

Hootie was right.

You should hold his hand.

Especially if you want to decrease his pain.

New Research Study on the Role of Touch & Pain

A new study tested Hootie & the Blowfish's hypothesis.  

In the study, data was collected on long-term couples.  Women were in the "pain receivers" group (contact heat stimuli).  Their male partners were in the "pain observer" group (holding hand or not).  

Researchers compared variables during both pain and no pain conditions, as well as touch and no touch conditions.

The study concluded that holding your partner's hand while they are in pain can actually decrease their perception of pain.

Or more scientifically stated:

"Critically, we found that high partner's empathy and high levels of analgesia enhanced coupling during the partner's touch.  Collectively, the evidence indicates that social touch increases interpersonal physiological coupling during pain. Furthermore, the effects of touch on cardio-respiratory inter-partner coupling may contribute to the analgesic effects of touch via the autonomic nervous system."

In other words, it's all about interpersonal synchronization:

"The human capacity for generating events in synchrony with other individuals has important evolutional significance. Behavioral synchrony is evident in the animal kingdom in various forms. Among them are synchronized periodic movements to create acoustic signals, synchronous flashing among fireflies, synchronized collective movements among predators while hunting and synchronized reactions to stressful and dangerous situations. Humans also tend to coordinate their actions and imitate the postures or actions of others whether they are aware of this or not. This ability develops early in life and is crucial for social communication in general and for the development of infant and mother bonding in particular. Furthermore, synchronized coordinated behaviors have also been noted in other social behavioral contexts, such as speech understanding or psychotherapy. These studies indicate that social synchrony plays a major role in affiliative behaviors and in the development of social behavior."

Graphical representation of Coupled Linear Oscillator (CLO) model findings for heart rate and respiration  ( image source )

Graphical representation of Coupled Linear Oscillator (CLO) model findings for heart rate and respiration  (image source)

Empirical Evidence

This hallmark card type of pain relief can be seen throughout our society.

From the honeymoon phase in new relationships to the widowhood effect in older ones, it's easy to see how having someone to love directly affects our health in many ways.

(image source)

(image source)

As a medical professional, this is something I often see in the clinic.

In fact, one of my previous co-workers even had a "relationship theory of spontaneous pain resolution".  He observed that individuals that were single for a prolonged time were more susceptible to pain.  Furthermore, once these patients started a successful relationship their pain would suddenly go away.

At first I thought he was a joking.  It sounded like a marketing campaign for an online dating company.

Then I started to see his theory play out in clinical practice time and time again.  Finding love was better than finding a pain pill.  #HallmarkCard

It's Not a Superpower

Don't get carried away with this concept and start going around grabbing stranger's hands, trying to cure them of pain like some evangelical savior.

It doesn't work like this...( image source )

It doesn't work like this...(image source)

"Interpersonal synchronization" isn't a given.  

There are some variables to consider.

Such as the level of relationship, self-compassion, social/cultural influences, communication, expectations, and whether or not you took out the trash.  

It depends on you, your partner, and the relationship you have.

To put it another way, just because you have a partner doesn't mean your touch can decrease their pain.

I'm sure if they did this study with couples in the process of getting a divorce they would have seen very different results.

So what should we do?  Imagine we're sending healing energy through our hands?  Sing them a love song as we grasp tightly?  Or just squeeze their hand and hope for the best?


There is one variable that was directly correlated with increased analgesic pain relief from touch and improved interpersonal synchronization - empathy.

Empathy - the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Since we can't change or fix other people, the only thing we can do is work on ourselves.  And the best way to work on ourselves to improve our relationships is to cultivate empathy.

So if we want to develop the superpower of relieving pain with our touch, we should first work on the superpower of empathy.


It's often not one thing that makes someone healthy, happy, or satisfied.  It's often a culmination of a lot of little things.

While it may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but being more physically affectionate with your loved ones through a depth of empathy can not only improve your own life, but their life as well.

And isn't that one of the main purposes of life.  To end suffering, spread love, and help others.

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.
— Lao Tzu