BY DR. VICTOR S. SIERPINA

A longtime motto of the American Holistic Medical Association is “Hugs Heal.” Sounds kind of corny right?

Well, this group of unabashed huggers has discovered that nothing makes a connection better and faster with a hurting person than an appropriately offered hug. By the way, hug “heart to heart” by putting your head over the left rather than right shoulder. The electricity of the heart to heart makes for a different kind of warmth in a hug.

A study of foundling babies in Great Britain during the early 1900s showed an amazing tale of the importance of touch. Orphaned babies left in a crib with adequate food and diaper changes rarely survived. However, in one story, an old nurse used to cuddle, rock, and hold the babies in her charge. They gained more weight, were brighter, and more socially interactive than those left alone. Important brain connections do not form in the absence of touch.

This was similarly demonstrated by the Harlow monkey experiments which found monkeys whose surrogate mother was a wire frame covered with terry cloth developed maladaptive behaviors, self-abuse, and poor social skills. Children of all species just seem to need touch in order to thrive.

Moody Gardens used to provide animals to children at Shriners’ Burns to help restore their sense of touch. With burned, screaming, wounded nerve endings, even light touch is hard and bandage changes are agony. As part of their recovery, the hospital brought in chinchillas, who have a really, really soft fur, almost a vapor. They also provided rabbits and other pettable critters. These allowed the children to touch safely, comfortably, and connect with their emotions in pet therapy. It was likely good for the caregiver pets as well.

Think of the diabetics with neuropathy. Having lost touch with the ground due to numbness, they often damage their feet without knowing leading to infections, ulcers, and even amputation. Touch is essential and when lost, can be threatening to life and limb.

When I was in medical school, a child psychiatrist who was my mentor, talked about the importance of “skin time” with his wife. As a single guy at the time, this sounded positively delicious to me. And as I later discovered in married life, skin time is really a time of connection, of healing from any riffs in the relationship, and a time for deep bonding.

For the elderly, many have lost their partners to disease and death. Even though they may not have an interest in sexual relations, they still have that primal need for being touched by another human being. There’s skin time again. Some of them won’t leave my office without a hug, and I suspect it might be the only one some of them get as their families may live at a distance.

Recall the great line from Louis Armstrong’s song: “Friends shaking hands, saying how do you do. They’re really saying ‘I love you.’ And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

Not everyone likes touching so much. People suffering from post-traumatic stress, abuse, or just having been raised in a family in which touching and emotion were discouraged will not feel comfortable with hugs and other physical expressions of human touch and affection. Sometimes a wonderful pet can fill the touching gap here, or maybe a regular massage.

The Touch Research Institute lists the following as benefits of massage:

1. Facilitates weight gain in preterm infants

2. Enhances attentiveness

3. Alleviates depressive symptoms

4. Reduces pain

5. Reduces stress hormones

6. Improves immune function

So I would encourage each of you to reflect on the importance and role of touch in your life. Think about those who you care about. Do you touch them enough? Do you get enough hugs and touches to fulfill your need for connection? If not, how might you find appropriate ways of touching, being touched, and experiencing the warmth and health promotion it brings?

To keep things appropriate and comfortable for all involved, be sure to ask permission to touch or hug. It isn’t for everyone. Touché.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.