Living With Chronic Pain

Sing Your Way To Pain Relief

Ever wonder why we all have the urge to sing? For many, myself included, it’s relegated to the bath or car. But wow, can I belt one out then. I often see the looks I get from the cars next to me when I’m clearly singing at the top of my lungs and gyrating as far as the seat belt allows. Singing is primal. Darwin even theorized people sang before they could talk by adding grunting to gestures which furthered our ability to communicate. Music is soothing and calming. Maybe that’s why we resort to a sing-song tone when speaking to little ones.

Music and dance can help pain. We all know the power they hold when we’re feeling down, frustrated, anxious, or scared. The beat and melody can immediately elevate and transport us. When I’m hurting, I often soak to the soft notes of jazz, Enya, Michael Buble’. When sore and achy I’ll often sway and move as the music flows through me and lets my mind release all the issues of the day. The motion gently relaxes the stressed muscles and joints.

Now let’s go one step forward and talk about how taking control of the music can add to its therapeutic value.

Singing helps in a myriad of ways. It doesn’t matter if you can carry a tune. It isn’t about what you hear, or the quality, it’s about how you feel when you sing.

Decreases cortisol levels

Cortisol is our “stress” hormone, meant to be released when we need to respond immediately to an imminent danger. But due to persistent and nonstop stressors we tend to stay in this “fight or flight” status all the time now. As a result, we shred our muscles, overwork our heart and divert blood away from organs like the kidneys and gut which are not required to run or stay and fight. This can’t last long. That’s why it’s so important to find appropriate ways to drop cortisol levels which allows the body to do the very thing it is prepared for, try exercise, meditation, reading. Singing has proved to be another way to help. In one study, participants stated their feelings of anxiety decreased and overall happiness increased after a musical session. This was attributed to lower levels of cortisol measured in the saliva of those who sang. The good news? It didn’t matter if it was solo or in a group. 

Improves the immune system

Music has been shown to improve the immune system. Those who sang had higher levels of immunoglobulin A, an antibody that fights infection, unlike those who just listened to the music. The immune system is important because it mediates an inflammatory response immediately after an injury. But if this acute response is left unabated and mediators released by the immune system are allowed to persist, they can alter pain sensitivity leading to chronic pathological pain. Maintaining a healthy immune system may be an important factor in keeping the acute phase from progressing this way.

Physiological benefits

Studies that followed choral singers showed significant physiological benefits including improvements to breathing throughout the respiratory system and decreased muscle tension- all leading to overall relaxation. It also increased energy and contributed to better posture and body control. All of these benefits improved overall circulation and oxygen use, integral to reducing inflammation and surging necessary nutrients to painful muscles and joints.

Releases feel good hormones

Singing encourages the release of endorphins- our own feel good hormone that offers an internal, natural opioid analgesic for pain relief. And oxytocin, another hormone we’ve discussed in the past, which decreases anxiety and stress. It has been called the “love hormone” because it’s released when we feel safe or receive human contact and comfort. When we sing, musical vibrations move throughout the body, altering our physical and emotional landscape. All in all an easy way to help ourselves anytime we want.

Group singing

Group singing is even more exhilarating and transformative. It takes something intimate and personal- a sound within you- and shares it, coming back as something even more breathtaking and powerful- harmony. Some studies even suggested that singing in a group synchronizes everyone’s pulse, effectively making them one collective heartbeat. An incredible way to join together and feel a necessary part of the whole. Research has shown singing improves both emotional and physical well being by promoting a positive affect, commitment and stimulation. Add a group setting and it contributes to a sense of belonging and purpose. 

A great workout

It’s also as good as any aerobic workout because it exercises major muscle groups by toning the abdominal and intercostal muscles – those between the ribs- and diaphragm. A Journal of Music Therapy study by Harvard and Yale universities showed chronic pain sufferers not only experience relief when singing but actually maintained that relief for a significant period of time afterward. Patients were split into two groups, those who sang and those who exercised with music for nine, thirty minute sessions. The singing group not only reported marked reduction in their pain but it lasted for 6 months! 

A distraction

Music and singing offer a much needed distraction to chronic pain sufferers. In multiple studies it helped patients undergoing medical and dental procedures reduce post operative pain leading to less opioid use. In a paper published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management June 2020, a review of 18 randomized trials showed those exposed to music required 15-20% less narcotics than those who weren’t. This is thought to be due to how nerve impulses in the central nervous system are impacted by our emotions and how we view pain. Anything that diverts our focus can be a powerful ally in altering those impulses and ultimately reducing fear, anxiety, depression, blood pressure and pain levels. Music is particularly powerful in being able to capture our attention and distract us. 

Emotionally engaging

It’s emotionally engaging, especially if our relationship with the piece is strong. Researchers have shown the more personal the music, the greater the effect on pain tolerance and perception of that pain. It decreases anxiety and helps us to feel more in control. Music gives us an incredible way to treat ourselves especially if we add the extra component of vocalization.

Singing encourages movement, elevates our mood, decreases how we feel and view pain by helping us to focus on the positive and diminish the negative. It’s fun and available anytime!  Next time it hurts, try humming a tune or belting out a song. 


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