Living With Chronic Pain

Music Helps Pain

We’ve always heard music has the power to soothe the savage beast. Now we know it can also inspire, energize, uplift and even help manage pain. Music has been used in medicine for thousands of years. But music therapy emerged as a formal means of care in the United States in the 1940’s, after doctors learned that music helped restore World War II soldiers suffering from shell shock. There are currently more than 5,000 trained music therapists working with patients in pain management centers, hospitals, clinics, senior centers, rehabilitation facilities, and drug and alcohol programs across the country. Music therapy for pain management is offered by many pain and cancer centers, and helps many people find solace and relief.

A growing body of research supports the claim that music can alleviate physical pain. Studies have shown music to be an effective pain reliever, both on its own and as an adjuvant in connection with other types of therapy. Long-term studies of music therapy in pain management have shown it improves quality of life and reduces the consumption of pain relievers.

According to these studies, a crucial part of patients’ needs is the belief they will regain a lost sense of control over their pain. Ignorance about what is happening and learned helplessness too often exacerbate suffering and raises anxiety levels. Feeling more in control may be a key aspect of lessening disability and improving quality of life through independence and a better ability to cope.

Because the experience of pain is partially subjective, altering a person’s perception of their pain can change their experience of that pain. Music may disrupt the brain’s “pain – stress – pain” feedback loop and in doing so, alter an individual’s sensitivity to pain. We know that music effects evolutionarily old subcortical areas of the brain, which influences different psychological and physiological states. Music modulates the brain’s limbic system, triggering numerous neurochemical effects which may ultimately help distract listeners from negative feelings and modify the influence of past memories associated with pain. Music also may promote relaxation by inhibiting the release of stress hormones i.e. catecholamines and weakening the arousal of the pituitary-adrenal stress axis.

It also appears that some music is more helpful than others. For a long time it has been understood that music chosen by the patient tended to be more effective. More recently, researchers have found significant correlations between certain sonic features of that chosen music, and measurements of pain tolerance and perceived pain intensity. In particular, music expressing contentment, no matter what its genre, was found to be most effective in reducing the experience of pain. Music that listeners find emotionally engaging seems to affect, and activate, the brain’s own internal opioid system which controls both physical pain and the pain of social loss.

Wow, all that just sitting back and listening to a few personal tunes!

Music therapy provides sensory stimulation that evokes a response that research has found helps patients by:

• Reducing the amount of pain they perceive

• Promoting relaxation, rhythmic breathing, and rest

• Alleviating anxiety and stress

• Giving their mood a positive boost

• Improves sleep

In chronic pain management, therapists often use music therapy as a means of conditioning the patient to relax and release pain and stress. Soothing music is paired with relaxation techniques, and eventually the patient learns to relax automatically when listening to the music.

Patients undergoing music therapy for chronic pain management have been found to:

• Require less pain medication

• Have significant improvements in their respiration, blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle relaxation

• Enjoy more peace of mind and better quality of life

Music therapists can design musical interventions for people in chronic pain management based on their specific likes and needs. The therapy might include:

• Making music

• Listening to music

• Singing along to songs

• Writing songs

• Discussing music and lyrics

• Using music to form images in the mind

• Meditating with music in the background

Music therapy is incredibly versatile. It can be done one-on-one or in group therapy sessions, at home, in a medical facility, or other setting. It doesn’t require anyone to be skilled or gifted in music, everyone benefits.

Finding Music Therapy Programs:

Music therapists are accredited health care professionals from the more than 70 colleges and universities that offer music therapy degree programs approved by the American Music Therapy Association. They hold a bachelor’s degree or higher and must complete 1,200 hours of clinical training and pass a national board certification exam before they are allowed to practice. Training includes area of psychology, counseling, physiology, and anatomy. They also must become proficient in four instruments — piano, guitar, voice, and a fourth instrument of their choice.

Music therapy is offered at many cancer and pain management centers. To find an accredited music therapist or music therapy program near you, contact the American Music Therapy Association at (301) 589-3300, or visit their Web site

For me, adding music to a hot bath has always enhanced the warm water’s ability to relax and de-stress my aching muscles. Adding classical tones to soft lights and an already peaceful setting can melt the tension away and ease my pain. That’s why I average three baths a day. But it can also help soothe my mind and body when sleep eludes me. There are a skew of free internet channels with a wide range of music available. Lately for me, Enya or the jazz station on Pandora have been the ticket. Music therapy is a not a pill, there are no side effects. You can start on your own with a favorite collection of songs or join a therapy program that can be individualized to promote relaxation, alteration in mood, a sense of control and self expression.

There’s nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

dsc_0323    –Dr. Courtney


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