What is the physiological basis of the healing touch?

Around 100 million adults in the United States are affected by chronic pain. What can we do about it?

Dema (male) the 26-day-old endangered Sumatran Tiger cub cuddles up to 5-month-old female Orangutan, Irma at the 'Taman Safari Indonesia' Animal Hospital, on February 26, 2007 in Cisarua, Bogor Regency, West Java, Indonesia. (Photo by: Dimas Ardian/Getty

Around 100 million adults in the United States are affected by chronic pain – pain that lasts for months or years on end. It is one of the country’s most underestimated health problems. The annual cost of managing pain is greater than that of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and the cost to the economy through decreased productivity reaches hundreds of billions of dollars. Chronic pain’s unremitting presence can lead to a variety of mental-health issues, depression above all, which often intensifies pain. And our most common weapon against pain – prescription painkillers – generates its own pain, as the ongoing opioid crisis attests. But must we rely on pharmacology to stave off pain? Perhaps there is a more natural nostrum – partial and insufficient, but helpful nonetheless – closer to hand. 

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This could lead to new pain relievers that mute the sensation without increasing the risk of addiction.

The Sopranos. Credit: Getty Images.

Pain is the body’s way of protecting itself, and communicating to our conscious mind that something is terribly wrong. We all have varying sensitivity to it. Recent research has found that how sensitive or tolerant you are to pain depends on your genetic makeup. Today, 25 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. That’s about 11% of the population. This is moderate to severe pain occurring every day for three straight months. 

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Around one in seven people suffer from migraines. That’s 38 million in the US alone. Women are three times more likely to experience them than men. On average, most sufferers have one once per month. For some people the pain is so severe, it can be debilitating. Migraine sufferers are often put out of commission for hours, even days.

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A bottle of prescription painkillers spilling out.

There is an epidemic going on today that you hear almost nothing about. Yet it effects around 50 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That’s more than those diagnosed with diabetes and cancer combined. It’s a chronic pain epidemic and it’s everywhere. Such pain is not only devastating for the person and their family, it is also the leading cause of disability. A higher number of cases puts more of a burden on the healthcare system and hampers economic growth. So it isn’t only the person and their closest kin who suffer, but society as a whole.

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