Integrative Care
Research News

Touch Me, Heal Me… Now We Know Why

28 February, 2014 by David Finer

Softly stroking the skin at body temperature at the speed of five centimeters (roughly two inches) per second. That’s the recipe for an optimal caress according to research from Gothenburg University, Sweden.

It is not wild guess that most people experience tender touching positively. In fact, sensitive, respectful touching is not only pleasant, it is healing too.

Classical Swedish massage has a long history and traditions from other countries roots that often are even older. Today, there is also a lot of serious research underway on, among other things, tactile touch, tactile massage and healing touch, some of the names given touch used for healing purposes.

Comfy caresses
Now researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg have identified the type of touch that humans consider most comfortable. They have also found that our nervous system is perfectly suited for us to respond to other people’s touch.

By using thin needles “listening ” to signals from the so called C-tactile nerve fibers, they could determine the optimal speed for when these nerve fibres react the strongest. This is when the stroking occurs at a speed of about five centimeters, about two inches, per second.

“The positive benefits of a touch require more than just being touched by any soft object. The strongest sense of comfort and security requires the touch to occur between people, skin to skin. In other words, it seems we have a system of nerve fibers finely tuned to respond to the force, speed and temperature of another person’s caressing stroke of the skin, says researcher Rochelle Ackerley in a press release. Ackerley is affiliated with both the Sahlgrenska University Hospital and Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg and with Universities in Liverpool and Manchester.

The response of the fibers was the greatest when the touching occurred at body temperature, while colder and warmer temperatures resulted in lower activity.

An Affinity for Attachment
For over 20 years, researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, have been interested in the neurological mechanisms behind touch. Their focus is particulary on the C-tactile nerve fibers in the skin.

The scientists conclude that these play an important role in creating affinity between people, and attachment between parents and the newborn. But the results are important for anyone who works with people who are in need of touch, from newborns to the elderly. Plus for all the rest of us for whom touch also is literally vital.

“International studies have shown that young children who suffer from lack of contact do not fully develop their nervous systems. Conversely, touch can be used as extra stimulus in premature babies to stimulate development of the nervous system,” says Rochelle Ackerley.

David Finer

Read more
Ackerley R et al. Human C-tactile afferents are tuned to the temperature of a skin-stroking caress. The Journal of Neuroscience.204;34(8): 2879-2883.

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