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December 10, 2013

Studies Explore Impact of Music and the Brain

by Richard Paul

Hospitals employ many therapeutic methods.  In addition to medication, there are interventions like massage therapy and hypnosis.  So why use music? 

“There’s a couple of reasons for music.  One - it’s very inexpensive,” said Dr. Sandra Siedliecki, a senior scientist at the Nursing Institute of Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.  

Also, she says we’ve done a lot of research on music's impact on pain.

“Especially Dr. Marian Good who did an awful lot on acute pain and music," she said. "She did a lot of studies looking at abdominal surgery patients and the use of music.”

In those studies, as in many others, patients listened to relaxing music.

Good found that her surgery patients took fewer opioids drugs when they listened to music.  Taking fewer drugs is beneficial, Siedliecki says, because pain drugs are limited by their side effects.  

“You get to the point where one more pill and the side effects aren’t quite worth it,” she said.

While Good had looked at acute pain, no one had ever studied chronic pain - the kind that just won’t go away.

“People with chronic pain feel powerless.  They’ve already tried everything," Siedliecki said. "There’s no choices left, so they feel powerless to do anything that’s going to make it better.”

Siedliecki was looking to address that powerlessness as well as patients’ depression, disability and - of course - pain. 

Studies Explore Impact of Music and the Brain

For Dr. Linda Chlan the problem wasn’t patients’ pain, it was anxiety.  Chlan, who is a professor of symptom management research in the Nursing School at Ohio State University, has spent a lot of time with people who are in the hospital because they can’t breathe.  People in this condition are often put on mechanical ventilators, and she says, “I was always struck by the profound distress that these patients experience regardless of the amount of medications that we gave them.”

It wasn’t just that the sedatives sometimes didn’t work, she said, “sometimes they would get more anxious and more anxious.”

And just like with Siedliecki's pain patients, the drugs these people are taking have nasty side-effects.  

“We had two primary aims of this study: To reduce anxiety as well as sedative exposure," Chlan said. "If they can control a non-pharmacological intervention in the form of relaxing, preferred music, can that have a beneficial effect?”

Chlan had nurses remind patients that music was an option and they also posted signs near their beds that said “Listen to your music at least twice today.”

Another group in her study used noise-cancelling headphones with no music.  A third group got standard care.  Siedliecki's study also had three groups: A standard music group, who listened to music from past studies, another group who were allowed to pick their own music and a group that got standard treatment.  The results were positive in both studies. 

For Siedliecki's patients “when you look at it overall, power, pain, depression and disability as a group improved in the music groups,” she said.   

Chlan’s study looked to decrease both the intensity and the frequency of the drugs people had to take.  She also found that music worked.

“We could reduce anxiety in mechanically-ventilated patients who were in this study, while we could also reduce the amount and the frequency of medication that these patients received,” she said.

The people who listened to music needed fewer sedative doses and had a 36 percent reduction in the intensity or the amount of medication they received.  In addition, their anxiety was reduced by 36.5 percent.  Both doctors had similar explanations for why music was so successful.

“Music operates on many levels," said Chlan. "It can be a very powerful distractor in the brain, where we’re listening to something that is pleasing and then it interrupts those stressful thoughts.”

“Music can be a distraction," Siedliecki said. "And if you’re doing something you enjoy, time seems to go by faster.”

These doctors seem to agree with that old line from the Bob Marley song, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”