Ouch! Turn that Music Up: New Study Shows Listening to Music can Relieve Pain

By Talia Beechick

Piano music sound waves


For years, doctors have been using music as a distraction for patients and as a tool for therapy pre- and post-surgery. They now, however, have the scientific evidence to back up their logic. Researchers at the University of Utah’s Pain Research Center have recently shown that music can, indeed, be used as a diversion to lessen the pain felt by patients.

A study conducted in the spring of 2011 by researchers at the University of Utah was inspired by David H. Bradshaw, professor at the university and a musician himself. Bradshaw curiously noted a positive correlation between practicing music and personal relief from headaches.

The study correlated feeling less pain because of listening to music

Intrigued, he paired up with four doctors within the school’s department of anesthesiology and used 153 healthy volunteers as test subjects, dividing them into two groups. Both groups received painful stimulations, or shocks, on their fingertips from electrodes of differing intensities. One group received the shocks with music merely playing in the background and the other group was given several musical tasks of varying difficulty. These tasks included identifying a deviant tone or recognizing when a melody changed directions. The music used was composed by Miguel Chuaqui, chair of the composition program at the University of Utah’s School of Music.

The researchers monitored the measurable electrical potentials found within the nervous system as well as pupil dilation and skin conductance responses of the test subjects when receiving the shocks. Through this information, they were then able to measure their central and peripheral arousal, or how much pain they felt. According to the study conducted by Bradshaw, the team discovered that as the music task increased in difficulty, the net engagement, or change in stimulus arousal in relation to task performance, decreased. This proved that there was a decrease in overall pain felt by subjects when focusing on the music and their assigned task. With all of this in mind, how does music manage to do this?

How does listening to music help us feel less pain?

According to the Science Daily News, music activates sensory pathways which compete against the pain pathways by engaging mental attention and stimulating emotional responses. Interaction with music, therefore, reduces pain responses. The magnitude at which it does this varies among individuals due to personality factors such as their levels of anxiety and their ability to engage in an activity. One surprising result of the study was that patients who were categorized as having high anxiety were actually more successful in engrossing themselves in the music tasks and therefore felt less pain than those who were considered as having low anxiety. Researchers expected the opposite, that individuals with high anxiety would be distracted by their uneasiness, keeping them from fully focusing on the music tasks and would therefore feel the pain on a greater level.

Bradshaw stated in the study that they have not yet found a single piece or genre of music which distracts patients best, rather, music that a person likes and is familiar with will provide the best results when attempting to alleviate pain. In an article in The Salt Lake Tribune, Bradshaw stated that heavy metal music can excite most people and is most useful for sharp, intense pains, particularly in an invasive procedure. Bradshaw also suggested using music in other instances that might cause anxiety, such as at the dentist’s office. Listening to an iPod while at the dentist can help mask the sound of dental tools, thereby reducing the stress, anxiety and pain one might feel during the session.

Music therapy helps diminish anxiety, aids cancer patients and helps those with Alzheimer’s disease

The concept of music as a pain reducer has extended into other fields in relation to health and well-being, with music therapy being a highly popular and quickly growing field itself. According to the American Music Therapy Association, music can be used to address emotional, physical, cognitive and social needs, with treatment involving not only listening, but also creating, moving to and singing music. Music therapy has been used to manage stress, alleviate pain, enhance memory and improve communication.

Several recent studies conducted around the world have tested how music influences people with illnesses and personal issues. Researchers at Drexel University, for example, found that music is able to reduce anxiety and improve cancer patients’ blood pressure levels and moods according to a study conducted in 2011. In a study conducted in February, researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden led a study in the relaxing powers of music. Not only did they prove that those subjects who relaxed while listening to music experienced more positive emotions more often and more intensely, but these same subjects also experienced less stress and had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The American Cancer Society indicated that music therapy can aid in lowering heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rates as well as reduce the risk of insomnia, depression and anxiety. It also has helps relieve cancer patients’ short-term pain and can help ease nausea and vomiting for patients receiving high-dose chemotherapy when paired with anti-nausea drugs. The American Cancer Society also mentions that recent studies investigated the power of music to increase the quality of life for hospice patients. Therapy using music is said to have improved the comfort, relaxation levels and pain control for the patients. This type of therapy can trigger positive results physically. Music has, in some individuals, relaxed muscles and dilated veins, which has greatly helped reduce the discomfort they felt in certain procedures, such as bone marrow aspirations.

Music therapy has also seen astounding results in terms of assisting with Alzheimer’s disease. A person’s ability to respond to rhythmic cues and engage in musical activities remains intact even in the late stages of the disease due to the lack of cognitive functioning required to process these cues. For Alzheimer’s patients, music that is unfamiliar can be used to relax someone in order to manage stress or induce sleep. Music that is extremely familiar, such as a song from a person’s childhood, can also help individuals even in the late stages of the disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, therapists often use stimulative music, which are songs with percussive instruments and quick tempos, to promote movement or even aid in daily activities, such as staying awake at the table during mealtimes. Sedative music, such as ballads and lullabies with little to no percussion or syncopation as well as slower tempos, can help with going to bed and any change in routine which may cause the patient agitation.

Ancient Greeks believed music could heal both the body and soul, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that scientists began researching the use of music as therapy for various ailments. But whether it is stimulating a patient with dementia to retrieve memories or merely soothing someone after a long, stressful day at work, music will always have a healing power which, arguably, exceeds scientific understanding.

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