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The importance of touch for overcoming and managing chronic pain.


In the Coronavirus pandemic the things many of us have missed most is touch, Not being able to hug our grandparents or cuddle our nieces and nephews has, for many people, been the very worst part of a very difficult situation. Many of my clients and friends have told me that they didn’t realise how important touch was until it was taken out of their lives. 

We know, at some very deep and instinctual level, that touch is very important for our human connection and our wellbeing. This is true through our lives, from when we are babies in the cradle to when we are older. We all need to give and receive touch regularly in a loving and caring way. 

In the First World War doctors observed that orphaned babies who were cuddled, as well as having their basic needs for nutrition and cleanliness met, thrived much better than babies that were fed and cleaned but not touched apart from that. 

My nursing colleagues tell me that it is no accident that the symbol of the nurse’s professional organisation, the Royal College of Nursing is a picture of human hands. Nurses know the importance of touch. They know that, even in a world where they manage very complex machinery to support patients and hand out strong drugs to help their recovery, the basic act of holding a patient’s hand, or gently stroking an arm, still counts for more than almost anything. 

If you suffer from chronic pain, then you probably know this already. You may recall times when a gentle hug from a loved one gave you just that little bit of help when it was needed. 

Hopefully, with the vaccines coming on stream we are going to be able to touch each other again before too many more month’s pass. In the meantime, do try to touch those you can, it will help you and them.

The power of touch  

You might also want to consider some therapies that work directly with touch. For the rest of this blog post I am going to explain how touch works and why it matters. I hope that when we can touch again you will be appreciating its power and how you can use it. 

I know from the clients at my hypnotherapy for pain management clinics that the right touch can help control pain. This is a wonderful tool in our arsenal to control pain so let’s take a closer look.

It is actually quite simple. Being touched makes us feel better. 

MRI scans show quite clearly that having a handheld, or a gentle stroke of the arm or a hug affects our brain chemistry. This simple physical touch releases types of brain chemicals called endorphins which promote feelings of calm and relaxation. These make us feel good in ourselves. But they do something else as well. If you have this good balance of brain chemicals and that feeling of being relaxed and at peace you have a very important mental space. In this state of mind, you are much more likely to be able to take decisions which are positive and good for you. You will be able to plan rather than just react. So, as well as making you feel good in the moment, touch can be the starting point for a set of life activities which make you feel healthier and more positive.

Therapeutic massage

There are various forms of touch therapy and therapeutic massage out there. Many people who suffer from chronic pain find therapeutic massage very helpful. An expert masseur knows how the muscles and the tendons work and can lock up causing pain and discomfort, by targeted and special touch they can ease that. Massage can also work with the lymphatic system to rid the body of waste fluids which can build up and cause discomfort. If you think this is for you make sure you go to someone trained to work with chronic pain as it is important that the massage is carefully targeted and gentle.  Studies have shown that during a professional massage levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop by about a third while levels of the feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine rise by about a third. That is a change which is definitely worth having. 

You can find out more and access lists of trained and registered massage therapists here https://www.cnhc.org.uk/search/node/massage

Working with body and mind

In recent years various newer forms of therapy which use touch have been developed.

Many of these have in common that they begin with an understanding of the integration of mind and body. Even if the techniques just relax you that will have a considerable benefit in releasing tension from the muscles, lowering blood pressure and improving your general body functioning. However, many of the techniques may do even more than this. 

As we have seen there is good evidence that as human beings, we need touch and that is a very basic instinctual need. Many of the modern techniques, such as Havening or EFT begin from this point, but go to a deeper level by utilising the body’s natural energy flows and rhythms to ease both mental and physical pain. These techniques are probably best known for their role in helping with mental trauma, but some practitioners will also work with physical pain as well. 

EFT and pain

Emotional Freedom Technique, or tapping, is a well-established therapy which uses gentle tapping on several meridian points on the body, along with repeating a phrase which is important to you, to clear blocked energy paths. It is safe, easy to learn and you can do it for yourself if you do not want to seek out a practitioner. 

Many EFT practitioners believe that chronic pain can arise because of an underlying trauma and then become encoded in our memories and behaviour. Chronic pain often occurs alongside psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety and is accompanied by fatigue. Tapping can help resolve some of these symptoms and the easing up of the energy flows around our body may help with the pain directly. 

Here is a video of one of the best-known practitioners of EFT demonstrating its use for pain.


The Havening technique

This is a newer technique, developed by a New York doctor, Ronald A Ruden. Dr Ruden describes it as a psychosensory technique where the use of simple touch can stimulate the brain waves and help the recipient deal with negative emotions. Havening is quite new in the UK but seems to be achieving very good results for emotional pain and dealing with traumatic memories and events. 

Dr Ruden has argued that the techniques work well for chronic pain, as he points out the majority of chronic pain cannot be cured with traditional drug regimes, which suggests that we need a new approach to deal with such a major and common problem. He believes that by applying touch in a certain way we can change the way our brains work and our thought patterns. The effect of touch on the body influences our thoughts. Here is a paper in which Dr Ruden explains his ideas about Havening and chronic pain in more detail. 


Havening can be a self-help technique. It is very simple and involves gentle stroking to the face and upper body, which you can do to yourself. 

You might find this video useful https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrHm8EAj9MA (it is about injury rather than chronic pain, but many of this practitioner’s insights, especially around feeling vulnerable, seem to apply well to both. 

If you want to find out more about Havening visit the website www.havening.org

Physical and mental pain are on not always divisible. 

Both Havening and EFT seem to work well for the relief of physical pain as well as mental pain. This does not surprise me. I always try not to divide physical and mental pain when I work with clients. To me it seems more productive to regard them as points on a continuum. There is a basic truth at the root of my approach. I know that a client who is in physical pain and feels unable to control it is going to find it very difficult to maintain a healthy mental attitude and a reasonable level of happiness. We need to work with habits and thought patterns as well as with the direct pain. 

Use touch in everyday life.

I hope you have found this quick tour around touch therapies useful and I would encourage you to try them. Both EFT and Havening can be safely self-administered so it is worth considering introducing as part of a good self-care routine to keep yourself happy and in control.

But don’t forget the everyday use of touch as well. Giving a hug to your partner when they come home, showing regular physical affection to your children and other family members can make a difference.

And roll on the day when we can safely touch again.

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