Being with a romantic partner can bring many — and sometimes — surprising health benefits. Studies have shown that merely touching the one we love can act as a pain reliever. New research suggests that even just being in a loved one's presence can help reduce pain.
Research published as recently as last year has shown that when a person holds hands with their significant other, they become more resilient to painful stimuli.
The study suggested that this happens because when we touch someone we love, our brainwaves synchronize, making painful stimuli seem less painful.
But can simply being in the company of the person we love have the same effect? A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Health Sciences, Medical Informatics and Technology in Hall, Austria, and the University of the Balearic Islands in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, thinks so.
According to the researchers, just being in the same room as our romantic partner can improve our tolerance to pain, even if we don't hold hands, otherwise touch, or receive any verbal support. The study's findings appear in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain.
"To extend our knowledge of the role of individual differences in social pain modulation, the present study aimed to investigate the implications of dispositional empathy, which refers to a stable trait tendency to be aware of, and vicariously experience, the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of another," the authors explain in the study paper.
Partner's presence can 'reduce acute pain'
For their research, the investigators recruited 48 heterosexual couples, in which partners had a mean age of 25.40. Partners had been together for a mean period of 3.22 years.
To assess each partner's empathy, the researchers asked them to fill in a questionnaire. Then, they tested how each person reacted to pressure pain under two different experimental conditions: when they were on their own, and when they were in the presence of their partner.
In the second scenario, the partner, though present in the room, remained entirely passive, not touching or speaking to their partner. To measure pain sensitivity on each occasion, the researchers used a special tool known as a pressure algometer.
The team found that both men and women appeared to be more resilient to pain when they were in the presence of their romantic partner. Moreover, the higher the romantic partner's level of empathy, the higher their pain tolerance.
"Repeatedly, talking and touching have been shown to reduce pain, but our research shows that even the passive presence of a romantic partner can reduce it, and that partner empathy may buffer affective distress during pain exposure," says first author Prof. Stefan Duschek.
Nevertheless, the authors also admit that their study faces some limitations. For instance, the researchers caution that the participants might have felt less pain when their partner was in the same room simply because their presence distracted them from the painful sensation.
"[T]he possibility that pain reduction to some extent was due to distraction caused by the mere presence of the partner, instead of actual support, cannot be ruled out," the authors write.
Still, the team concludes that their findings do indicate a significant effect of romantic bonding on pain sensitivity:
"Despite [...] restrictions, the study provided evidence that the presence of a romantic partner is effective in reducing acute pain even without his or her active feedback, and that this effect increases with partner empathy."