Do Loved Ones Help Our Injuries Heal?

gabrielle giffords recovering with help of her husband?
Love, Heartbreak

Doctors discuss how Gabrielle Giffords' loved ones factor in to her recovery.

Over the past week, injured congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has astounded the medical community with her speedy progress toward recovery. Just days after being shot in the head, Giffords reportedly opened an eye and reached out to her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, in an attempt to give him a hug. Although regaining motor functions certainly signifies vast improvement, her ability to respond to commands and connect with people around her has instilled hope that Giffords has emerged with higher-level brain functions intact. While her body wavers between death and life, Gabrielle Giffords, the person, still lives. Men 6 Times More Likely To Leave A Sick Partner

Considering Giffords' grave condition earlier this month, several doctors have begun discussing the role family and friends may have played in her swift recovery. Some medical experts doubt that the emotional support of loved ones makes a difference. Others, like Giffords' doctor, Dr. Michael Lemole, are convinced that the presence of people close to her has been instrumental. Last week, it was reported that Giffords voluntarily opened her eyes for the first time after hearing the voices of her friends, Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in the room. After seeing Giffords respond to them, her husband encouraged her to give them the thumbs-up sign. When Giffords instead reached out her arm, he asked her to touch his ring, which she did. To everyone's surprise, she even grasped his watch and wrist. Dr. Lemole told them that while he'd initially dismissed the role of friends and family as "meaningless," seeing how Giffords reacted to their presence convinced him that they'd bolstered her will to keep fighting. True Love: Caring For My Sick Husband

"It was the combination of the unexpected but the familiar [that] really inspired her to open her eyes and look around," Lemole said. "This is the part that doctors have the hardest time with. We can't quantify that component that family and friends bring, but we know it exists." 

Indeed, it's difficult to measure how much love, interaction, and encouragement is needed to summon someone from the brink of death. There isn't a standard dosage of emotional support required for countering physical injuries and health problems. People can't even handle medication the same way, let alone subjective experiences like love and familiarity. 

At the same time, countless studies have shown that love and intimacy can improve your health. For instance, a study published last year claimed that romantic love alleviates pain. In a controlled experiment, Princeton students who were shown pictures of their new lovers reported less pain than when they saw pictures of their friends. Other studies say that having sex once or twice a week improves immunity by boosting levels of an antibody called immunoglobin A, which staves off colds and infections. There's also evidence that holding hands with someone (even a stranger, but especially with a beloved spouse) reduces stress.

Chances are, this isn't news to those of you involved in happy, loving relationships. Being sick sucks, but isn't the misery much more bearable when your significant other takes care of you? Need we mention how comforting it is to have someone hold back your hair when you're throwing up, or how much worse you feel at a hospital when no one visits you?

Doctors are right in saying that the presence of family and friends isn't measurable. Compared to meticulously-researched medical care, the effects of love may even be negligible, but when it comes to resuscitating someone from certain death, every bit of emotional support counts.