Music helps reduce pain by activating sensory pathways that compete with pain pathways, stimulating emotional responses, and engaging cognitive attention.

It is an art form whose medium is sound and silence and whose power is endless. A new study reported in The Journal of Pain concludes that listening to music can be effective for reducing pain and high-anxiety.

Researchers from the University of Utah Pain Research Center evaluated the potential benefits of music for diverting psychological responses to experimental pain stimuli. They hypothesized that music may divert cognitive focus from pain. If true, the key to successful pain control from this method would be the degree of engagement by the patient in the diversion task.

One hundred forty-three subjects were evaluated for the study. They were instructed to listen to music tracks, follow the melodies, and identify deviant tones. During the music tasks, they were given safe, experimental pain shocks with fingertip electrodes.

The findings showed that central arousal from the pain stimuli reliably decreased with the increasing Music Therapy Reduces Pain and Anxiety music-task demand. Music helps reduce pain by activating sensory pathways that compete with pain pathways, stimulating emotional responses, and engaging cognitive attention. Music, therefore, provided meaningful intellectual and emotional engagement to help reduce the pain.

Among the study subjects, those with high levels of anxiety about pain had the greatest net engagement, which contradicted the authors’ initial hypothesis that anxiety would interfere with a subject’s ability to become absorbed in the music listening task. They noted that low anxiety actually may have diminished the ability to engage in the task.

Sunny Hadder is Birmingham Hospital’s board-certified music therapist. Armed with keyboard and guitar, Hadder created the hospital’s music therapy program from the ground up. Now doctors say they couldn’t do without her sweet tones and reassuring nature.

Music therapy has also been used to temporarily open up areas of memory for Alzheimer’s patients.

“We’re seriously considering hiring a second music therapist,” says Cathy Newhouse, administrative director of rehabilitation services for the hospital. “The demand for her service has increased significantly, to the point where one person can’t fill the demand.”

Hadder says she’s seen all of these effects while making her daily rounds through the hospital, seeing people of all ages suffering from all manner of illnesses.

“The first time I played at the hospital, there was a little boy who hadn’t interacted with his mother or anyone since his heart surgery three days before,” she says. “When I started doing music with him, he started singing and playing. His mother was crying with relief.”

Less confusion, less depression

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Harvard neurologist Dr. Gottfried Schlaug explains that when an area of the brain is disabled due to trauma or disease, music provides a unique way to reach that area, sometimes restoring impaired functions such as movement, memory, and speech.

For instance, researchers have found that music can establish a steady pace that helps patients with advanced Parkinson’s disease initiate walking.

Music therapy has also been used to temporarily open up areas of memory for Alzheimer’s patients. In one study mood and function significantly improved in subjects with dementia who learned that when they pushed a button they would be rewarded with a familiar song.

In research conducted by Dr. Schlaug, stroke victims who developed speech impairments were taught to improve speech fluency by expressing themselves with a chant-like form of singing.

Last year, a University of Helsinki study examined 60 stroke patients who were divided into three groups, some patients listened to whatever music they liked, some patients listened to audio books, and some patients had no specific listening plan.

After three months, focused attention and mental operation abilities improved by nearly 20 percent in the music group, but didn’t improve at all in the other two groups. Verbal memory scores in the music group improved by a very large margin, and subjects were less confused and less depressed compared to the other groups.

The University of Utah’s Pain Research suggest that engaging activities like music listening can be effective for reducing pain in high anxiety persons who can easily become absorbed in activities. They noted that interaction of anxiety and absorption is a new finding and implies that these personality characteristics should be considered when recommending engagement strategies for pain relief.

About The Author