By Mary O’Brien, M.D.
Seasoned politicians understand it. Talented athletes get it. Even newborn babies are “all in.” Unfortunately, too many professionals in health care seem to need a reminder. We’re slightly distracted by gadgets these days. Actually, touching patients has become, well, “yucky.”
Savvy politicians realized long ago that patting another person’s shoulder as they shook hands elicited more support and cooperation. Players in the National Basketball Association who engage in more high-fives, fist bumps, and “guy hugs,” are apt to play better as individuals and as a united team. (Believe it or not, psychologists have actually studied this.)
The landmark research on positive touch dates back many decades, revealing that newborns deprived of caring, gentle, living touch resulted in failure to thrive despite adequate nutrition.
Research into the neurophysiology of touch demonstrates remarkable conditions between pleasant, soothing sensations and social connectedness. In a nutshell, “A-beta” nerve fibers conduct impulses related to touch. These touches are triggered by– displacement or movement of long hairs on the skin — by vibration, movement, indentation, and stretch. “A-beta” fibers enable us to detect a wobbly table, a greasy dish slipping out of our hands, the weight of a puppy curled up against us, or the wind blowing through our hair.
Another type of fiber, “A-delta,” carries information about the movement of short hairs on our face or body. These sensations are decidedly unpleasant like walking into a spider web or feeling a bug crawling up our arms or legs. Assorted other fibers carry pain impulses at a very rapid rate so that we can react and hopefully survive.
However, the newest nerve fibers to be discovered are part of the emotional or affective touch system. They are called CT or “C-tactile” afferents. These fibers transmit impulses associated with gentle, pleasant, nurturing sensations — an affectionate pat, a warm hug, or a loving caress. Compared to pain fibers, “C-tactile” fibers are slower to respond, perhaps encouraging the pleasant interaction to linger a little longer.
Gentle touch fosters human interactions, togetherness, and nurturing for survival. It’s fascinating that touch is the first to develop in utero and the most highly developed one at birth.
Clinical research is underway to study the effects of gentle, pleasant touch on conditions including autism, neuropathic pain, depression, and spinal-cord damage. Why wait? Let’s put the gadgets aside for a minute and touch the patient. You’ll both feel better.