Pain and music: Dealing with pain to the beat of a different drummer

Sometimes, pain persists in spite of whatever treatment health care providers use to relieve it.  While it has become fairly common to add other treatments like relaxation, meditation, and massage, along with standard medical approaches to pain management, music is a less well known non-medical method for helping relieve pain. Actually, using music as a healing tool in medicine dates back thousands of years, and the field of music therapy has been a part of Western medicine since the early 1950s.

The Cochrane Collaboration, a group of scientists that reviews and reports on health research, examined a group of studies about pain and music.  According to a review completed by the Cochrane Collaboration in 2006, the majority of studies about the use of music to treat pain have been done with people who’ve just had surgery.  Their conclusion is that while medication is the best form of pain management after surgery, music can in fact reduce the intensity of pain, as well as the amount of medicine needed to manage pain.  Studies have also found that music can reduce pain in other painful medical procedures, dental procedures, and cancer treatments, as well as during labor, and also in people experiencing chronic pain.

Why does music reduce pain?

Researchers think that the pain reducing effects of music may be partly due to the way music focuses attention away from pain, and onto something more pleasurable.   For many people music is a stimulus that may arouse a soothing response.  Many people associate feelings of security and serenity with some forms of music.  Music may also have pain reducing effects because of the feelings of relaxation that music provides.  While the research is not 100% conclusive, some researchers believe that music may cause the body to release endorphins, which are natural hormones the body makes that work against pain.

Using music for pain relief may also help people gain a sense of control over their pain.  If you can only take your pain medicine every 6 hours, using music in between doses can provide the sense that you are able to do something on your own to ease the pain, until the next dose of medicine.  Even if music provides only a small amount of pain relief, it is worth trying, because it is non-invasive and costs nothing.

Researchers have learned that music can be used to help people:

  • Reduce the perceptions of pain
  • Produce feelings of relaxation
  • Lower blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension
  • Help set a pace for rhythmic breathing, and other relaxation strategies
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Reduce stress
  • Improve sleep
  • Generate positive and upbeat feelings
  • Improve quality of life

A musical approach to managing pain

As a pain management strategy, music can be used to stimulate the “relaxation response,” and help a person let go of stress and worry.  By using other relaxation strategies along with music, a person can eventually learn to relax automatically just by listening to music.  According to the American Music Therapy Association, music can be used to improve health in a wide variety of ways, based on specific likes, interests, and abilities.  The healing benefit of music can be achieved through:

  • Making music
  • Listening to music
  • Singing along with music
  • Using music to form soothing visual images
  • Using music to enhance meditation and other relaxation techniques

Music can be used in a wide range of places, can be done alone or with others, and by people with various levels of musical skill.  You don’t need formal training or musical skill to benefit from simply listening.  Music therapy is increasingly being offered at pain management and cancer centers across the country.   Little research has been done to see whether specific kinds of music work better for certain people. Most clinicians think that any style of music can be just as effective as any other; it all depends on an individual’s taste, and they encourage people to experiment to find out what works best for them.

For many people, music may hold the potential to help decrease pain when it is used along with appropriate medical care.   In most cases the reductions in pain are short-lived, and they have not been found to reduce pain over long periods of time.  But perhaps the best news is that unless you turn the volume up too loud, there are no side effects to using music to help relieve pain.  So the next time you are in pain, add music to your usual pain therapy – it’s worth a try.