Touch. We know it's important to babies and children, but once we are grown, we pay less attention to it. Nonetheless, it's still important to our daily lives and mental health. The skin is our largest sense organ and touch has evolved as a medium of communication for humans. Your skin tells you if it's hot or cold, humid or dry. Your skin is involved in greeting strangers with a handshake, interacting with your family and connecting to your spouse or partner.
And then RA comes along and touching falls by the wayside. You hurt and are afraid that that physical intimacy — hugs, touch, sex — will hurt and the people who love you are afraid that their touch will make things worse for you. Before you know it, this essential way to nourish your relationships becomes a smaller and smaller part of your life. It leaves you increasingly isolated and creates distance between you and your loved ones at a time when you need the connection the most.
When you have RA, touch can remind you that your nerve endings are not just made to register pain. Touch can heal and make you feel loved and not so alone. But how do you get back to touching when you hurt?
Reach Out and Touch Someone
When we speak of touch among partners and spouses, it is often a euphemism for sex. Sexual intimacy is one of the best ways to meet your need for touch and often one of the first things to get put on the shelf when one of the partners hurt. Your sex life doesn't have to be put on hold when you have RA. In fact, sex can help reduce the experience of pain due to endorphins (natural painkillers) that are released during orgasm. When you have pain, adapting how you have sex can keep this part of your relationship alive.
Sex isn't the only way we are intimate with our partners, though. Brief touches as you pass, a kiss hello when you see each other at the end of the day, a massage for aching shoulders — all are part of the physical intimacy within a couple. Paying more attention to these aspects of intimacy can help you stay connected during the times where your pain levels may be too high for even gentle sex. Here, too, you can adapt how you touch when certain of your joints hurt too much to reach out to your partner the way you did before. Instead of holding hands, let your feet touch each other as you watch TV on the couch. Instead of a massage, let your hands slide slowly over your partners back or shoulder. If you can't reach their shoulders, have them sit in front of you. Sliding your hands through each other's hair can be blissful and doesn't require perfectly straight fingers. Don't get stuck in what you used to do and can't anymore — think outside the box and play with ways of getting back in touch.
Use the same approach to the way you touch the other people in your life. Hugs among friends can be gentled or changed to other ways to greet and say goodbye, such as touching hands, touching cheek to cheek (which can feel very chic and French) or sitting close enough that your shoulders touch. Your children can learn to be gentle with you and roughhouse with your partner or other members of the family. You can show love in many ways, the important thing is that you make it a priority.
But what if you're single or your pain keeps you from seeing people? There are things you can do yourself to help feed the need for touch. Having a pet guarantees that you will every day touch and be touched and give and receive love. If you can, knitting and crocheting can also help remind your nerve endings about tactile pleasure — the feeling of soft yarn sliding through your fingers is one of the magical parts of these kinds of hobbies. Wearing something soft, like a sweater or scarf, can also do wonders, as can holding a smooth rock in your hand.
Touching and being touched are basic human needs and are especially important when you live with pain. Making sure you include ways to sensory pleasure through touch can help you cope with pain and feel less alone. Remembering that there isn’t just one way to touch can keep you from getting stuck in believing you can’t do this anymore. Playing with different ways of touching can help you discover new ways to feel safe and loved.
Do you have any tips for our community about touching and RA?
Lene is the author of the award-winning blog The Seated View.