A few weeks ago, I had an experience that has really stuck in my head. The resident and I were performing a painful procedure on a patient, and I could tell that he was really enduring a lot of pain by the grimace on his face. As I’ve done in the past, I instinctively reached out my hand and held his hand in mine. I allowed him to grip my fingers, and told him to squeeze my hand as hard as he needed to.
He started squeezing my fingers, and suddenly his face turned from a grimace to a smile. The change was rather startling, and so I jokingly told him that I’d never seen a patient with such a huge grin on their face while undergoing such a painful procedure. He smiled even more and said that it was because he was so happy to hold such a “pretty girl’s” hand. I smiled back, and soon the procedure was over.
I think it probably makes common sense that hand holding might bring some relief from pain. We all reflexively hold a child’s hand when they’re in pain. And I believe that even the most callous people might agree that there is something powerful about the human touch. Hugs are an even better example. I don’t know when the hug was invented, but I’m sure that it’s been around for quite some time. People of all races, ethnicities, and cultures seem to use the hug as a means of displaying affection. And while certain cultures might value human touch to varying degrees, I think we all agree on its significance.
One of the most well known studies on the power of touch and the importance of physical and social interaction is that of Harry Harlow. In his famous experiments, he allowed rhesus monkeys to choose either a cloth or wire “surrogate mother,” both with and without a bottle of milk attached. Regardless of which mother had the bottle, the monkeys continued to choose the softer, cloth mothers. He also performed other controversial experiments, including ones where he deprived the monkeys of all physical or social interaction. The lack of physical touch produced monkeys with severe psychological pathologies, and in a few cases led to their deaths from self-induced starvation.
A study recently published in the journal Science also found some interesting results with regard to “warm hands and a warm heart.” The researchers found that if people were given something warm to hold, they subsequently described other people as having “warmer” personality traits, such as being more generous, more social, happier, and better natured. They also discovered that people who held something warm were more likely to behave in a friendly and generous way.
I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the importance of the human touch, but you can see that the subject is much more than simply skin deep (pun intended). I tried to find some research that supports my anecdotal notion that holding someone’s hand who is in pain can serve to decrease their perception of the pain, but I was unable to find much research on this topic. Perhaps it’s a topic that will be further explored in the future.
But for the time being, I will continue to hold my patients’ hands. Whether they are in pain, or just very sad, or just very lonely, or even just very happy, I will continue to offer my hands to them. And hopefully when I need a hand to hold, someone will do the same for me.