Our favourite music can lift a flattened mood considerably. That’s why we plug ourselves into our phones on the way to work, put on the radio in the car on a long journey and pump up the volume whilst doing the household chores. But can music do more than that; much more – can music relieve chronic pain?
A Danish study
It’s long been accepted that music can have a direct and measurable effect on acute pain, but research has now shown that it can also have a positive effect on chronic pain, both reducing the level of pain and improving functionality. The study, which focused on people suffering from Fibromyalgia, took place at Aarhus University in Denmark. As both an acclaimed musician and a leading neuroscientist, Professor Peter Vuust was perhaps uniquely qualified to lead the study. He explained:
”We measured both directly and indirectly how the participants experienced their pain after having listened to self-chosen, relaxing and pleasant music, and we measured an effect on all parameters. They reported that the pain became less unpleasant and less intense.”
How can music reduce pain?
It is thought that there may be two mechanisms at work. The music may trigger the release of the body’s own opioids in the brain, reducing the feeling of pain. In addition, it may well be that enjoyable music is a very effective way of redirecting our attention away from the pain. However, in the study, the pain-relieving effect continued after the music had stopped. It is therefore thought that the most significant of those mechanisms is the release of opioids.
It seems that the type of music is unimportant, the crucial thing being that the individual finds it enjoyable. Professor Vuust says, “In terms of pain, it is important that you listen to music that you already know and like. When you’re in pain, you need a familiar setting in which you can navigate and, if you can, do that with music you know and like.”
Interestingly, an earlier Cochrane review entitled “Music for Pain Relief”, published in 2006, somewhat counter-intuitively had suggested the opposite; that music selected by other people was better at reducing levels of pain intensity compared to an individual’s preferred music. However, that Cochrane review has now been withdrawn.
A Glasgow study
A study in Glasgow in 2007 investigated the music listening behaviour and beliefs of 318 people suffering chronic pain. The results suggested that the main long-term benefits of music were enjoyment, relaxation and distraction. Those who listened to music more frequently seemed to have a better quality of life and the conclusion was that music can indeed lessen chronic pain.
Music on prescription?
As part of an ongoing treatment and therapy regime, many doctors treating people with chronic pain now recommend music as one of a number of specific therapeutic techniques. And it seems that this idea is not limited to specialist pain doctors.
In a 2013 study, General Practitioners on Merseyside were questioned on whether they ever recommend that patients with chronic pain listen to music for pain relief. Interestingly, almost one in five did so, citing it as potentially beneficial; one of a number of suggested techniques to distract attention from their pain, reduce anxiety and aid sleep.
In earlier articles, Libby Parfitt has examined Mindfulness for CRPS and Chronic Pain and provided a very helpful Beginner’s Guide. Relaxation and meditation are well established tools in the pain management toolkit and a common technique used in both is the incorporation of calming music and sounds.
There is a lot of relaxation-focused music available free online and even some that is specifically stated to be beneficial for chronic pain. Here are just a couple of examples:
You may find these tracks helpful or you may hate them. For me, a novice at relaxation techniques, the first of them had a very soothing effect; so soothing in fact that after about 10 minutes I found myself struggling to stay awake!