Healing And Hurting: The Power Of Touch

The power of human touch has played an important role in the history of healing. The therapeutic power of touch is evidenced in activities like the religious ceremonial laying on of hands and faith healing sessions. It’s also been used in energetic healing systems like qigong and Reiki, as well as in contemporary practices like massage, acupressure and chiropractic.

With the vast increase in prescription drugs, radiation therapies and high-tech surgical procedures, the focus on — and indeed, the belief in — the healing power of touch, has all but disappeared in mainstream medicine. It is alive and well in many alternative health venues, but remains largely a fringe method of healing.

This should not be the case.

Today, our modern scientific method has time and again rediscovered what the ancients knew all along about touch. But years ago, the conventional view held that the practice of touch was a quaint subject relegated to old books and oral folklore.

Only recently has modern science awakened to the power of touch. And new technology has shown that touch is a valid therapy.

Consequently, the power of human touch has finally been proven effective by scientific studies, especially when it comes to pain relief.

Repetitive Proof

Every day, when we brush up against something, are poked or bump into objects, we experience the sensation of touch. Sometimes the sensation is pleasant. Other times it is quite painful.

Generally, the type of pain you feel, the sensation of the touch event, brings to your mind an instant picture or vision of what you had contact with. When you stub your toe, along with the pain arrives an image of the table leg. Step on something shard and pointy, and along with the pain is an image of a nail or tack or splinter (depending on the specific pain sensation, and your personal experience with that type of sensation).

This happens, according to two recent studies published in the journal Nature, because your epidermis conveys the feelings/sensations to the central nervous system, which equates it with something from previous experience. Cells called Merkel cells, specifically, have been thought to be involved in this process, but it was not understood just what role they played. However, the recent studies published in Nature give insight into this process:

“Recordings from touch-dome afferents lacking Merkel cells demonstrate that Merkel cells confer high-frequency responses to dynamic stimuli and enable sustained firing. [T]hese findings indicate that Merkel cells actively tune mechanosensory responses to facilitate high spatio-temporal acuity.”


“Merkel cells signal static stimuli, such as pressure, whereas sensory afferents transduce dynamic stimuli, such as moving gratings. Thus, the Merkel cell-neurite complex is a unique sensory structure composed of two different receptor cell types specialized for distinct elements of discriminative touch…

“Our data present evidence for a two-receptor-site model, in which both Merkel cells and innervating afferents act together as mechanosensors. The two-receptor system could provide this mechanoreceptor complex with a tuning mechanism to achieve highly sophisticated responses to a given mechanical stimulus.”

What this shows, for the first time, is that Merkel cells actively encode basic information about pressure that’s being exerted when we touch something. And they also amplify and enhance subtler sensations such as the shape of a keyboard beneath fingertips.

Mechanism Of Touch

Nature has published a pair of studies on the mechanism of touch and how it acts to reduce pain sensations in those suffering conditions like postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). POTS causes its victims to feel intense pain whenever they are touched.

This condition results from a dysfunctional autonomic nervous system that produces symptoms akin to fibromyalgia. With POTS, even the lightest and most tender sensations can be painful events — even from touches like like a feather on the skin or the wind on your skin.

This new discovery of how humans feel and process the sensation of touch is leading the scientific community to study how sensations of touch, various pressures and motions, influence the body and its experience of pain. For people who can’t even feel touch and for those who experience pain when touched, research is trying to find ways to correct the dysfunction.

As the Nature study’s co-author and associate professor at Columbia University, Ellen Lumpkin, told Pacific Standard, “[U]nderstanding the basis of gentle touch has implications for unrelieved pain, particularly tactile allodynia (pain when touched).”

And here we are, with science finally catching up to the wisdom of the ancients in countries across the globe, rediscovering the power and validity of the power of human touch to heal.





Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.