Music Therapy

Can Music Relieve Pain?

Smiling woman using headphones to listen to music

Ears are useful things, aren’t they? They’re involved in participating in conversations, warning us of approaching dangers, and as little ledges on which to rest the arms of our eyeglasses. They can also play a part in relieving the pain and anxiety associated with medical procedures. And no, we’re not talking about administering some novel painkilling drug into the ear canal – we’re talking about music.


Music to Your Ears (and to the rest of you, too)

The term “music therapy” first came about around 1950. However, there are reports of music being used for therapeutic purposes even dating back to Biblical times when David played the harp to soothe King Saul’s mental distress. The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as “a discipline whose professionals make use of clinical and evidence-based music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” Amongst other things, these goals can include reducing pain, anxiety, and depression.

As a form of pain relief, music has several benefits, such as:

  • It’s pretty much free (no associated anesthetist bills)
  • Doesn’t come with any side effects or risk of complications (except for many a little lingering earworm afterward)
  • Is non-invasive

Music therapy has also been shown to be able to reduce the need for sedation or medicated pain relief as a patient is recovering from a procedure, which in turn could lower the risks of dose-related side effects from those drugs.

Studies show that playing music for patients can demonstrate some measurable physiological changes, including reducing blood pressure, easing muscle tension, improving heart function, lowering heart rate, and slowing breathing rate. Brain imaging studies have found that listening to music stimulates the release of dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter associated with rewards and good feelings. There’s even the suggestion that music has the potential to intercept pain signals at the spinal cord, even before they reach the brain. One study found that listening to unpleasant music was associated with study participants reflexively withdrawing their feet after being zapped on the ankle more quickly than if pleasant music was being played (interesting experiment, isn’t it?).

Listening to music may also help to serve as a distraction from your situation and surroundings as well as provide a sense of familiarity despite the foreign environment. Of course, different people and personality types may find themselves easily distracted by music whereas others are more likely to tune out the tune and focus on their physical surrounds instead.


When Should You Hit the Play Button?

Because listening to music is a pretty safe activity, most medical procedures should be able to accommodate a playlist for you. The effects of music therapy have been studied in a variety of situations, including in patients undergoing bone marrow biopsies for blood cancers, patients recovering from breast cancer surgery, cancer patients admitted to hospital for pain, patients with neuropathic pain, children undergoing removal of their tonsils, and patients having nasal septum surgery. While not every trial concludes with a statistically significant improvement in pain perception or anxiety levels with the use of music, most studies have found that patients who listened to music were better off compared to those undergoing the same procedure without music therapy.

Music can be useful during all stages of your experience in the hospital or clinic, from helping you relax when preparing for your procedure all the way to helping to alleviate pain and discomfort when you’re recovering afterward. Playing music during the procedure itself has also shown to be beneficial for pain and stress, even if you’re required to be sedated or have general anesthesia.

So, the next time you’re lined up for a frightening or painful procedure, talk to your doctor about whether they might allow you to bring your headphones or run your playlist through the clinic speakers.