The Healing Power of Touch

From LIFE George Howe Colt

It’s our most intimate and most powerful form of communication.

Huddled in his clear Plexiglas incubator at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Medical Center, 11-day-old Brandan Owens seems as inaccessible as Snow White in her glass coffin. Born eight weeks premature, now weighing four pounds, Brandan must live in this artificially warmed environment because his own underdeveloped system can not yet regulate his body temperature.

Brandan’s mother gives a nervous start as Maria Hernandez-Reif of the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute (TRI) reaches through the incubator’s portholes and begins to massage the baby. Her hand is larger then Brandan’s entire back; as her fingers move in firm downward strokes, the baby’s translucent skin looks as if it might tear as easily as tissue paper. Now Hernandez-Reif’s fingers stroke an arm as fragile as a twig. She is applying gentle pressure - too light and it tickles, too strong and it hurts.

Far from injuring the infant, the massage may be essential to his development, for newborns are meant to be touched. In fact, if Brandan is like most of the premature babies studied at TRI, a leading scientific center devoted to exploring the effects of touch on health, he will reap benefits nothing short of astonishing. With three massages a day for ten for ten days, he should be more alert, active and responsive then nonmassaged infants to his six and condition. He may have fewer episodes of apnea, a risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). He should gain weight 47 percent faster.

As Hernandez-Reif’s hands move over Brandan’s shriveled body, he gradually relaxes, purses his lips and extends his legs, seemingly in pleasure. By the end of the 15-minute massage, Brandan is peaceful but alert.

Primal Need. For a baby, tactile stimulation can be a matter of life and death. Michelangelo understood this: when he painted God extending a hand toward Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he chose touch to depict the gift of life. From the nuzzling and caressing between mother and infant that form the foundation of the self, to the holding of hands between a son and his dying father that is our most intimate and powerful form of communication.

The effect of even the most casual touch has been seen in several studies. In one, waitresses who touched their customers on the hand our shoulder as they returned change received larger tips than those who didn’t. Small wonder that politicians believe wading into crowds to "press the flesh" will pay off on election day.

Medicine or Hooey? The idea that touch can heal is an old one. The first written records of massage - the word comes from an Arbic word meaning touch - date back 2500 years to China. A bas - relief on the tomb of Ankhma-hor, an Egyptian priest from 2200 B.C., depicts a seated man receiving what some historians interpret as a foot rub, or massage. Hippocrates, the Greek physician known as the father of modern medicine, was a proselytizer for massage in the fourth century B.C. He wrote, "The physician must be acquainted with many things and assuredly with anatripsis the medical art of rubbing.

In 20th - century America, massage has often been assumed to be a front for prostitution. But in recent years massage has regained respectability and now enjoys unprecedented popularity. Americans make 75 million visits to more then 120,000 practitioners each year.

And science is confirming what we knew in our hearts - that, as psychiatrist James Gordon puts it, "massage is medicine." At TRI, psychologist Tiffany Field directs a staff or 28 students, volunteers and massage therapists, and collaborates with researchers at the University of Miami, Duke and Harvard. More than 50 TRI studies, many still in progress, indicate massage may had positive effects on conditions from colic to hyperactivity to diabetes to migraines. Massage may help asthmatics breathe easier, improve autistic children’s ability to concentrate, and relax burn victims about to undergo debridement, the painful procedure of removing contaminated skin.

"I started out thinking it was a bunch of hooey," says Dr. C. Gillon Ward, medical director of Jackson Memorial’s Burn Center, "but I’ve become a believer."

Tactile Resistance. When we say that somebody touches us emotionally, it means he or she has gone to the core of our being. Physical touch, too, is more than skin - deep. Skin is the human body’s largest organ, containing millions of receptors - about 8000 in a single finger tip - that send messages through nerve fibers to the spinal cord and then to the brain. A simple touch - a hand on a shoulder, an arm around a waist - can reduce the heart rate and lower blood pressure. Even people in deep comas may show changes in their heart rates when their hands are held. Positive, nurturing touch appears to stimulate the release of endorphines, the body’s natural pain suppressors. That may explain why a mother’s hug can literally "make it better" when a child skins his knee.

According to TRI research, massage boosts immune function - even in HIV - positive patients - and lower levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine.

Also, massaged preemies were discharged from the hospital six days sooner on average - at a current savings of $15,000 each. With 424,000 premature births in America each year and a potential $6 billion in annual savings, one might think hospital nurseries would be falling all over themselves to establish massage programs. Yet they are still not widespread.

Perhaps one reason is cultural. America is what anthropologists call a nonactile society. Compared with most cultures, we are touchy about touch. [Very Sad] When psychologist Sidney Jourard observed rates of casual touch among couples in cafes around the world, he reported the highest rate in Puerto Rico (180 times per hour). One of the lowest rates was in Florida (two times per our).

Field has discovered that French parents and children touch each other three times more frequently than their American counterparts. At McDonald’s restaurants n Paris and Miami, Field found that French adolescents demonstrate significantly more casual touching - leaning on a friend, putting an arm around another’s shoulder. American teen-agers were more likely to fiddle with their rings, crack their knuckles or engage in other forms of self-stimulation. "French parents and teachers are more physically affectionate, and the kids are less aggressive," says Field.

First and Last. Field worries that Americans aren’t getting enough touch, especially with growing concerns about sexual harassment and abuse in schools and workplaces. Even in preschools, touch has become taboo. "The implications for children involve significant effects on their growth, development and emotional well - being," observes Field.

At the TRI preschool six floors below Field’s office, teachers encourage "positive touch." They dole out unlimited hugs, back rubs and shoulder pats. Most of the 40 children, from six months to five years in age, get a daily 15-minute rubdown, which leaves them more alert, more responsive, able to sleep more deeply.

Touch is the first sense to develop in humans, and it may be the last to fade. TRI set up a study in which volunteers over age 60 were given three weeks of massage and then were trained to massage toddlers at the preschool. Giving massages proved even more beneficial than getting them: the elders exhibited less depression and loneliness and lower levels of stress hormones. They had fewer doctor visits, drank less coffee and made more social phone calls.

Eighty - year old Madeline Chance had become depressed after her husband died and her grown children moved away. When she heard about the study of massage and the elderly, she signed up. She had never had a massage before but found it soothing. Like most of the volunteers, she liked giving massages even more. "You miss all that - the touching," she says quietly. When the research program ended, Chance continued to come in to help massage that toddlers.

"Baby, would you like a massage?" she asks John, a chubby seven-month old. John gurgles up at her. She bends low over the child, her fingers gently stroking his back. John, who had been fussy, gradually relaxes. The baby grins a toothless smile and holds up his arms as if in ecstasy. Chance looks down at him and beams. Clearly, they are touching each other.


Note by Kathi.....

This article demonstrates along with empirical evidence that humans need the "good touch". Infants literary die without it. I wondered if such a program incorporated in the mental heath field would ameliorate the healing process of mentally disturbed persons. The information given seems to indicate that such an effort in this area would be advantages to the further our understanding of these unfortunate individuals. Such intuitions provide the minimal physical care and yet lacks the major healing power of the simple positive touch.