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Touched Out Syndrome- Touch and Chronic Pain

Sarà il Tempo di Vivere le cose che Hai I am writing this post from the waiting room of yet another doctor’s appointment.  With the car accident I had a few months ago that caused severe whiplash in addition to the fact that I only have a few months of insurance to get everything I may need done checked out, I am literally “TOUCHED OUT.”


“Touched Out Syndrome” was coined in relation to mothers and their children, particularly during the breastfeeding phase and it is not a medically recognized syndrome (see resource below), but the “syndrome” struck me as quite relevant to those living with chronic pain. As a CHRONIC PATIENT, I find myself on the exam table quite often, especially these days.  That means I have technicians, nurses, doctors, and heck sometimes I feel even the receptionist and the billing person want to poke at me or make me take off some article of clothing.  I do not protest. I make sure to dress appropriately to try to make it easier for the doctors and I never complain (even when some doctors seem to enjoy doing the [touch] “does this hurt?” “Yes.” [touch  harder] “I already said it hurts you sadistic bas$^%d” test. But the truth is that after a while, having so many stranger’s hands on you all the time, takes away the intimacy of human touch.


Additionally, in a medical setting, you are essentially a lab rat.  You are not really a human to them once you are (semi)naked and on the table.  Some doctors are nicer than others in performing their exams.  I have some doctors that are very kind and ask first, or say, “Can you lift this or lower this or that, I am going to…” and then gently examine me.  To the contrary I have had my fair share of specialists, especially orthopedists (sorry orthopods), that just reach into an article of clothing and examine away without regard to privacy or pain. When you go through years of being in a hospital gown you start to lose your humility and pride.  It is not a good feeling.  Whereas I used to be very embarrassed to even have to take off my T-shirt and put a gown, now I am used to gowning up, but I still get that sickening feeling in my stomach, like I am just a cadaver to some of these doctors.


Touched Out Syndrome is a result of all the doctor’s appointments. I also do physical therapy, which involves massages, muscle release, chiropractic adjustments and a lot of, you guessed it, touching.  After the fusion surgery (that sounds like a restaurant), I was also going for weekly massages, back when finances did not mean counting pennies for gas.  While I enjoyed them (to a point, they were therapeutic and helpful but painful), that too was one more person’s hands on me.


At one point I was going three times a week to physical therapy, once a week to massage therapy, once a week to the doctor…and after a while I truly did not want to be touched anymore, not even by my then-husband.  This is just one more problem that chronic pain can cause in life and especially in marriage.  Touch becomes associated with pain and doctors.  Touch becomes a clinical sensation, a means of diagnosis.  Yes, touch can also be very healing, but when you are being touched all the time and you are still in pain, the association tends to be less with healing and more towards pain.  I have spoken to others who live with chronic pain and they have said that, especially following surgeries or when they are in acute pain or a flare, intimacy tends to dwindle for exactly this reason- simply put, they are touched out.  After all, if you spend your day being touched and probed by clinicians, causing you pain, do you really want your partner’s hand on you at night?


Hopefully your pain is not always acute.  Mine was much more “chronic” for a while and I was stable.  Currently I am in an acute phase and I am going for a lot of tests, exams, etc. and I am definitely very touched out, but as things die down, the hope is that touch can once again go from being associated with pain to being associated with healing.


Have you ever experienced this?



Photo courtesy of Rita M. via Compfight

Touched Out Syndrome- Touch and Chronic Pain

Tracy Rydzy MSW, LSW

My name is Tracy and I am a licensed social worker. I was working as a Social Worker, when an emergency spinal surgery 2 years ago changed my life and my career. I live with chronic pain and, as a result, I have taken my social work and writing skills, and made them into this blog. This blog is a humorous, informative, no-holds barred honest look at life with chronic pain, depression and disability.”

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APA Reference
Rydzy MSW, T. (2013). Touched Out Syndrome- Touch and Chronic Pain. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Sep 2013
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