How touch can reduce physical and mental pain, from hugs to weighted blankets

Two smiling friends embracing, showing physical touch. (Getty Images)
Are you getting enough touch in your life? (Getty Images)

Ever heard the expression 'a hug a day keeps the doctor away'?

Well, building on that further, new research has found physical touch, whether between people or from objects like weighted blankets, can help improve both physical and mental health.

Touch, especially from humans and animals, can reduce pain, feelings of depression, and anxiety in adults and children, according to the study. The benefits of touch on physical and mental health are present for both healthy people and those in a clinical setting (e.g. in hospital).

"In conclusion, we show clear evidence that touch interventions are beneficial across a large number of both physical and mental health outcomes, for both healthy and clinical cohorts, and for all ages," the researchers from Ruhr University in Germany say, writing in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

"These benefits, while influenced in their magnitude by study cohorts and intervention characteristics, were robustly present, promoting the conclusion that touch interventions can be systematically employed across the population to preserve and improve our health.”

sleeping under weighted blanket ~ shot with canon eos rp
You can benefit from touch in different forms. (Getty Images)

Analysing 212 studies involving 12,966 people, the researchers found strong evidence of health benefits in adults who engaged in touch with other humans or objects including robots and weighted blankets. That said, the largest mental health benefits were found when people touched other people, and the more often someone had physical contact with someone, the more beneficial it was.

Julian Packheiser from Ruhr University and colleagues did not find differences in physical or mental health benefits in adults based on the type of human physical touch, such as massage or hugging. This was also seen in newborns. The authors did find improved health outcomes when the face or scalp was touched as opposed to other body parts like the torso, and that touch in one direction was better than more haphazard touch.

With this in mind, here we consult a psychologist, psychotherapist and counsellor about why touch is so important, how it affects our physical and mental health, and how to experience more of it if you feel disconnected from human interaction.

The importance of touch

Senior friends walking in public park
Small demonstrations of touch can go a long way. (Getty Images)

"Human touch is really important to us as social beings. It's thought to be in our roots as mammals, that we thrive and are stronger in groups by preening one another and being connected in that way. It's also how we organise our relationship and family group hierarchies too," says Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist and host of The Aspiring Psychologist Podcast.

UKCP psychotherapist Mark Vahrmeyer, co-founder of Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy adds, "Touch is of existential importance to human development. Put simply, an infant will die without touch and we continue to need touch throughout our lives. Somewhere in the region of 55% of human communication is non-verbal and of this touch makes up a significant part."

How touch affects physical and mental pain

"What we see when people are not in relationships [of any type] where they're being touched is that their mood can dip," Dr Trent emphasises.

BACP-registered counsellor Lisa Spitz says the absence of touch is known as 'hunger touch'. "We crave hugs by children and friends, affection from animals, kisses from our partners, anything that means that not only are we seen, but we’re not alone. Hunger touch is when you don't get the touch you're used to or want – a craving for more.

"I think to feel you are cared and loved for in a physical (non sexual) way is incredibly important for both mental and physical health. During COVID we were all suffering from hunger touch – we wanted to hug family and friends outside of our bubbles and felt sad and low when we couldn’t acknowledge them that way."

Vahmeyer points out that while touch "will not resolve mental anguish", it can ease the symptoms. "Touch can and does help ease mental pain and distress for much the same reasons it eases physical pain. There is something fundamentally primal about touch as it formed the earliest form of communication and bonding experience between mother and infant," he explains.

And touch in small ways can go a long way. "You might hug a family member, shake hands when you meet someone new, kiss them hello/goodbye, or hold hands and think how that makes you feel," Spitz adds. "Touch can often convey what words can’t…. 'I’m sorry, I care, I’m here'. Non-verbal communication is powerful."

mum and baby
The amount of physical touch we get as babies can shape us in later life. (Getty Images)

In terms of easing physical pain specifically, Dr Trent refers to 'kangaroo care' of neonates as an example. "This is where parents or carers are doing skin-to-skin contact with their very young baby and cuddling, stroking, soothing and being connected with their baby," she explains.

"Evidence shows recovery times for getting home are speedier and if there's any kind of painkillers or pain relief needed for anything – for example when older children are able to have contact with play therapists, physiotherapists or parents or carers for massage – it's lower."

Our early development can have knock-on effects in later years.

Vahrmeyer adds, "Being touched in a loving or caring way tells us that another is there and showing us empathy and care. From a physiological perspective we know that being touched causes the release of serotonin and dopamine which not only help us feel better, but also reduce feelings of pain."

Touch in different forms

Beautiful woman looking away and touching her neck with her hands. She is standing in her bathroom. She is probably putting face cream on her neck.
Massaging ourselves still counts as physical touch. (Getty Images)

To help fill in the gaps for those who might experience less physical touch from others, Dr Trent says, "What we advocate for in circumstances like this, when finances allow, is that massages, manicures or some other way of feeling a human presence is organised."

Dr Trent points out this is similar to what's already being done in some psychiatric hospitals, like hand massaging. "Just therapeutic touch, can be really powerful, important and humanising," she adds.

"Where people don't have others around them, we can also benefit from touching ourselves, like massaging our own hands or face."

And in terms of non-human touch entirely, Vahrmeyer adds: "Whilst touching objects is a poor substitute for human touch, nonetheless it can have a physiological impact on our nervous system. An example of this is the use of a weighted blanket [as highlighted by the study] that seems to cause the body to 'let go' of stress and leads to the production of dopamine and serotonin.

"People who live alone and have no intimate relationships, certainly can find a weighted blanket to be helpful. Interestingly, research suggests that this loneliness affects men more than women, and men can particularly find this helpful. However, touching an animal can be both helpful and therapeutic for people, hence why animals are now used therapeutically across a range of settings from prisons to hospices."

Commenting on potential 'touch interventions' suggested by the study, Vahrmeyer says what he thinks could prove helpful. "Any recognition that when people are touch deprived they often feel lonely and that this has an adverse impact on their health, is important," he says.

"I would be wary about outsourcing touch to robots as this is likely to be of very little long term value. However, in recognising the power a simple touch of the hand can have, through to the use of therapy animals in appropriate settings, significant benefits in the areas of both mental and physical health can be achieved."

Additional reporting PA.