April 28, 2021

The healing power of touch in hands-on therapies

Could you really find relief from long-term or severe pain in a single session with a  physiotherapist? Science says ‘yes’.

If you're living with a disability or severe injury, it may sound flippant (or even ridiculous) to suggest that manual therapy with a healthcare professional such as a physiotherapist could quickly result in a reduction in your level or pain or experience of pain. After all, your pain is a complex puzzle of tissue and/or nerve damage, brain signals and chemicals, memories and beliefs and their emotional effects and other factors.

However, it is not so far-fetched to suggest that your pain level or experience may be reduced within one or two sessions with a practitioner using tailored, targeted, evidence-based manual therapeutic techniques. How can that be?

While each hands-on therapy is tailored by highly-trained health practitioners to treat specific complaints, which undoubtedly may require sustained treatment to promote improvement, manual therapy brings with it the healing benefits of touch itself.

If it sounds a bit woo-woo, consider everyday benefits of touch. For instance, a hug promotes the release of bonding hormone oxytocin and makes us feel safe, close and connected. When you’re suffering emotional pain, a hug can make a world of difference. Then there’s massage, which has been shown to help regulate physiological factors such as blood pressure. But how can touch itself help with pain? Read on for a brief overview of the science. 

How does touch promote healing? 

The mechanisms through which touch can both promote the body’s own healing capacities and improve the pain experience are complex and not fully understood. However, neuroscience research solidly supports a number of powerful ‘analgesic’ mechanisms and pathways. For instance, a leading Swedish touch neuroscience research has identified special fibres in the body known as C-tactile afferent fibres, which regis­ter and convey to the brain the emotional meaning of different types of touch. We automatically detect, interpret and respond to these signals without even being aware of it. In another neat twist, these fibres also happen to respond optimally to the temperature of a human hand! (Interestingly, the word 'chiropractic' literally means 'done by hand' (from the Greek 'cheir' or hand and 'praxis' or action). So what? 

In effect, the constellation of effects activated by therapeutic touch can help to relieve pain and the anxiety that can both result from, and perpetuate, the pain experience. Research shows that gentle, consensual physical contact delivered by a trusted health practitioner can relieve the anxiety that often accompanies pain and confer emotional support, camaraderie and confidence in obtaining relief (rather than fearing that it will last forever). Touch has even been shown to reduce levels of stress hormone cortisol and promote the release of feelgood hormone serotonin. This can help to reduce the perception of pain. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that is often deficient in depression, which is common among those experiencing chronic pain and can compound both the physical and mental experience of pain. These factors can make pain feel more tolerable, even before the underlying or condition heals or improves from specific types of manual therapies. This may explain why clients often report less distress and discomfort after a single session with a chiropractor, physiotherapist or remedial massage therapist.

Do you really need a professional?

If touch itself can relieve pain or alter pain perception, does it matter which type of hands-on therapy you receive? And do you really need to pay a health professional at all? In a word, yes. While pain is a complex interplay of brain signals, physical factors and emotional responses, it usually stems from a specific physical injury, condition or compensation (e.g. joint or ligament injury, arthritis or muscle imbalance). Identifying these factors and administering targeted treatment are key to correcting the causes of pain. Diagnosis and targeted hands-on treatment by an allied health professional such as a chiropractor or physiotherapist, combined with recommended self-management strategies, can help to deliver relief from the physical and mental effects of pain while promoting healing or correction of underlying causes of pain. 

If you’d like to be free of pain and are not sure which treatment type you or someone in your care  needs, our knowledgeable client services team can help you to get the best possible treatment and advise on applicable programs and schemes.

Soaring Health acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our services are located.

We honour the strength and resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and pay our respects to all Elders, past and present.
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