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Tickle Therapy: Anti-Aging and Purported Health Benefits of Tickling

Could tickling actually be beneficial to your long-term health? Today, Flo investigates how tickle therapy can slow down the aging process and boost your nervous system.

Generally speaking, tickling refers to either of two distinct phenomena, but with very different causes. The first is a peculiar, itching sensation resulting from physical contact with, for example, a feather or someone’s fingers, as they glide lightly across your skin. You can probably elicit this feeling quite easily almost anywhere on the body’s surface by moving your fingers gently across your own skin. 

The tickling sensation may outlast the stimulation factor by several seconds and produce an acute desire to scratch or rub the affected area. Doing so helps to alleviate that irresistible itch. Note that this kind of tickle rarely triggers laughter.

In contrast, the type of tickling sensation which produces laughter usually requires repeated application of heavier pressure to specific regions of the body. These areas include the rib cage and the underarms. A prominent psychologist named G. Stanley Hall and his colleagues labeled the lighter tickle as “knismesis” and the heavy, laugh-inducing tickle as “gargalesis” in 1897.

From a physiological perspective, what causes tickling? Simply put, the nerve endings present in your skin send signals to the cerebellum. This particular region of the brain reacts to physical stimuli and monitors movement. So that tickly feeling arises from your cerebellum’s reaction to the unexpected sensation of someone tickling you.

Clear differences exist between the phenomena of knismesis and gargalesis. As mentioned, one such distinction is that one’s associated with laughter, while the other one is not. Secondly, it is possible to replicate the feeling of a slight tickle or knismesis in yourself. On the other hand, you cannot successfully elicit gargalesis and therefore, spontaneous laughter, in yourself.

Lastly, experts theorize that knismesis might have developed as an evolutionary mechanism. That nagging feeling prompts the immediate rubbing or scratching of the area, thereby removing parasites or insects from the body.

According to research on the subject, tickle therapy could be an effective method for battling certain signs of aging.

The aging process is accompanied by changes in the functioning of the autonomic nervous system. It’s the portion of the nervous system which controls involuntary occurrences, such as digestion, heart muscle activity, and breathing. It can be broken down into two branches: parasympathetic and sympathetic. They work in opposition to one another, striking a balance between the human body’s natural instinct to survive and its need to rest and restore itself. Getting older translates to a significant reduction in parasympathetic activity and a heightening of sympathetic activity.  

These gradual alterations to the autonomic nervous system could prove harmful to heart and GI function, as well as overall mood and emotional state. It also plays a key role in numerous medical conditions which older individuals are more susceptible to, such as depression, hypertension, and heart failure.

These issues tend to be associated with frequent usage of medications and a poorer quality of life. That’s why limiting the negative impact of age-related changes to the autonomic nervous system is so important. Better health usually equals more independence, enhanced moods, and improved quality of life. Additional benefits may include lower mortality rates and less reliance on drugs and hospitalization.

Clinicians have shown interest in utilizing electrical currents to positively influence the nervous system. The primary nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the vagus nerve, is frequently used for electrical stimulation experiments. According to past studies, the practice might help treat depression, obesity, epilepsy, stroke, heart problems, and tinnitus.

Fortunately, a tiny branch of the vagus nerve is present in specific parts of the outer ear’s skin. Applying an electrical stimulus to this branch (which is likely perceived as a tickling sensation) could assist in restoring the autonomic nervous system’s overall balance. 

A recently published journal study explored the effects of one session of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and daily administration of the same. Volunteer subjects aged 55 or older received tickle therapy via surface electrodes on the outer ear or tragus that were connected to a TENS machine. Two weeks of tickle therapy enhanced autonomic function in study subjects, promoting better sleep, regulating mood, and boosting quality of life. In other words, researchers believe it slowed down the signs of aging in the autonomic nervous system.

As outlined above, tickle therapy gets the juices of the autonomic nervous system flowing again. There’s a subsequent spike in parasympathetic activity levels and an accompanying drop in sympathetic activity levels. This restores balance in the autonomic nervous system, allowing it to function normally and fend off the usual age-related disorders.

Scientific research demonstrates that TENS or tickle therapy has the potential to regulate mood and sleep patterns while upping the quality of life for older adults. 

Tickle therapy is capable of battling symptoms of depression, mental confusion or anger, poor sleep, and low energy by stimulating the autonomic nervous system. Moving forward, experts on the topic might be able to identify exactly which individuals and which conditions will reap the greatest rewards from daily tickle therapy.