I have always believed in the healing power of touch. Even before I began my journey into massage therapy I was aware of the warmth I felt from a hug, or the welcoming message behind a friendly handshake. As a dancer I know that with our bodies we communicate so much on a very basic, instinctual level, without need for words. It was a natural progression for me to seek out a profession that uses touch in a therapeutic way, and after all these years the simple importance of healing touch is still at the heart of my massage practice.
But why exactly is touch so healing? What is the scientific basis for this belief that guides my work? I decided to find out.
The sense of touch is the earliest sensory system to develop in the human embryo, and it is the most mature sensory system we have when we’re born. It’s referred to as the “mother of the senses”, our first medium of perceiving and communicating with the external world. Our central nervous system actually develops as the inward-turned portion of the embryonic body. So our nervous system is essentially a buried part of our skin, and our skin is an exposed part of our nervous system. How amazing! No wonder we can feel so much with our skin and use it to give us information about our environment, even when we can’t see or hear. No wonder skin-to-skin contact has been proven to be so important for infants, promoting healthy weight gain, increased muscle tone and better ability to regulate nervous system responses to stressful stimuli.
There are other reasons why supportive, peaceful touch helps regulate nervous system activity in people of any age. When we are touched, pressure receptors under the skin called Pacinian corpuscles send signals to the vagus nerve, which then slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure, a trademark “rest and relax” response. Receiving pleasant touch also decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increases levels of oxytocin in the body. Oxytocin promotes feelings of trust and wellbeing, as well as lowering blood pressure and reducing other stress related responses. It is the hormone responsible for the bonding that occurs when a mother feeds her baby, or when a child falls asleep in his father’s arms.
Studies have shown that when this whole physiological response to touch is repeated over time, the body becomes conditioned to be less reactive during stressful situations. In short, regular therapeutic touch can help reduce stress. When we successfully manage our stress we sleep better at night, more easily maintain healthy weight, and function better at work and in relationships.
My overall goal as a therapist is to heal with touch. But how does one do that? Certainly not all touch is healing, and sometimes it can be quite the opposite. When I massage I aim for my touch to be absorbed and integrated by my client’s body, because that is when I see the best results in terms of structural change and pain relief. With a soft, open hand I try to communicate to my client that they are in a peaceful, supportive environment, so that their skin and sensory system sets off the series of reactions that promote relaxation and feelings of openness. Then I work with pressure, movement, and breath to soften tight muscles and restore fluidity to stagnant areas. I also know from my qi gong practice that I am most able to send these signals when I too am relaxed, with my bones and joints aligned and open. When my energy is unobstructed I can better use my own sense of touch to feel what is happening in the client’s body beneath my hands.
As humans we all have a basic need to feel connected, safe, and supported. Therapeutic touch speaks to that need, creating responses within the body that help us attain those feelings. This is the thought that presides over my work, that maintains importance over the many techniques and theories I have learned over the years. We are healthier and less stressed when we take the time to connect with our inner selves and with each other. So give a friend a hug, cuddle up next to a loved one and be sure to get regular massage. It’s good for your health!
This blog was originally written for the Droge Clinic in 2012, using the following sources:
1. “The Experience of Touch: Research Points to a Critical Role” by Daniel Goleman. New York Times, February 2, 1988.
2. “The Use of Comforting Touch and Massage to Reduce Stress in Preterm Infants in the NICU” by Linda Law Harrison, R.N, Ph. D., FAAN. Newborn and Infant Nursing Reviews, Vol 1, No 4, 2001, pg 235-241.
3.Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin by Ashley Montagu.
4. “Human Connections Start With A Friendly Touch” by Michael Trudeau.
5. "Oxytocin: World's expert talks about this calming hormone." An interview with Kerstin Uvas-Moberg, M.D., Ph.D.