Have you ever tried to relieve pain through music? I definitely have. I’ve occasionally sung songs in my head to distract myself from the brief but stinging pain of getting a shot or having blood drawn. This strategy helps me forget about the pain I’m feeling, and research suggests that others benefit from this approach as well.
Over the years, a number of studies have investigated the relationship between music and pain. Research studies collectively provide some evidence in favor of using music as a pain management tool. For example, a 2012 literature review examined 17 studies conducted between 2005 and March 2011, and 13 of the 17 studies found that subjects (who included women in labor, as well as critical care, medical, and surgical patients) experienced significantly less pain when they listened to music.[i] The authors wrote, “The combined findings of these studies provide support for the use of music as an adjuvant approach to pain control in hospitalized adults. The use of music is safe, inexpensive, and an independent nursing function that can be easily incorporated into the routine care of patients.”[ii]
In addition, the authors of a review exploring the use of music in palliative care observed that music could increase oncology patients’ quality of life by reducing pain, anxiety, and mood disturbances.[iii] Multiple studies under review found that music both lowered subjects’ perceptions of pain and reduced their need for pain medications.[iv] However, this analysis and the other literature review noted that although promising evidence exists, researchers need to provide more data to support the use of specific types of music interventions, as well as the use of music for pain relief with different populations.
While music in general can ease pain, individual preferences affect how much pain relief a person might get from listening to a particular piece of music. In one recent study where researchers measured both enjoyment of music and sensations of pain, “the more pleasing the listeners found the music to be, the less pain they felt.”[v] Other factors may influence music’s efficacy as well. For instance, research indicates that people may experience less pain when actively, rather than passively, listening to a piece of music.[vi]
Because of personal preferences, as well as the diversity of music interventions used in research studies, no one can definitively say that everyone should use one song or type of music to alleviate pain. Each person needs to think about what he/she enjoys and choose music accordingly. If you’re looking for additional advice, I discovered more suggestions from a music therapist who says, “It’s important that whatever you find moves you, but try also to look for music that is limited in instrumentation and vocals, relaxed in tempo, but solid enough in pulse to give you something external to focus your breathing on.”[vii] You may or may not find these other recommendations helpful, but definitely follow that first suggestion and find music that “moves you.”
Regardless of the type of music you choose, try to have a list of songs handy for the moment pain strikes since you are more likely to experience pain relief if you start listening immediately.[viii] We’ll try to help you get your list started by discussing some examples over the next couple of weeks, and you can also help others by leaving a comment to share your own stories and favorite songs!
[i] Cole, Linda C., and Geri LoBiondo-Wood. “Music as an Adjuvant Therapy in Control of Pain and Symptoms in Hospitalized Adults: A Systematic Review.” Pain Management Nursing 15.1 (2014) : 406-425. Print.
[iii] Archie, Patrick, Eduardo Bruera, and Lorenzo Cohen. “Music-based interventions in palliative cancer care: a review of quantitative studies and neurobiological literature.” Supportive Care in Cancer 21.9 (2013) : 2609-2624. Print.
[v] Bates, Mary. “A Dose of Music for Pain Relief.” BrainFacts. Society for Neuroscience, 30 Jan. 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.
[vii] Thomas, Natasha. “Music for Rest and Pain Management.” Music Moves. Music Moves, 14 Jan. 2011. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.