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Don’t fret! Use music to manage your pain

Steve Schapiro. James Baldwin dancing the "hitchhike" with a CORE worker, New Orleans, 1963

As a devotee to the art of music and a past, present, and (most likely) future feeler of pain, the idea that I can take something that I love to combat something that I certainly don’t is intriguing to me.

Other than being used for my stubbed toe or a pinched nerve, it can perhaps be better utilised for those who suffer from more serious chronic pain conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia. The possibility to reduce the pain from these diseases with the aid of art, instead of a list of medications and possibly tedious daily exercises is incredible.

And as an honorary research assistant working in the IOPPN at King’s College London, my ears perk up when I learn about any opportunity for a new psychological intervention to help the management of an illness or disease. The search for new pathways, to add to the list of established and valid therapeutic treatments that are widely available, is important to me, as it can lead to the discovery of alternative methods for patients who are unable to find relief with existing therapeutic methods. Providing more options for therapies would grant a wider array of patients to be appropriately cared for depending on what they respond to.

Something to “Handel” your pain

As per the International Association for the Study of Pain (or IASP), chronic pain can be defined as pain that lasts beyond the usual period of healing, which is usually anything longer than three months. Chronic pain can occur from an illness, injury, or even neurological conditions, and it can manifest in many forms, from dull to sharp pain. It is an intricate condition and can severely impact not only a person’s physical but also emotional wellbeing. It is a significant issue in the public health sector, affecting around 20% of the world population; but, despite its prevalence, it is often undertreated and misunderstood.

Pain management is a huge challenge, not only to those who are experiencing it but to healthcare providers as well. In the UK alone, 46% of the general population have reported chronic pain with 5.6% reporting severe chronic pain. And while there are pain-management programs in place that offer these intensive multidisciplinary approaches that can improve patients' physical performance as well as their psychological wellbeing, the provision of these programs is scarce throughout the UK and are largely unavailable to those who need them.

While no cure currently exists for chronic pain, many types of treatment are available that can help manage the condition and improve quality of life. The treatments can range from typical medications (duloxetine, venlafaxine, etc.), to physical therapy, and, of course, surgery (microvascular decompression, glycerol rhizotomy, etc.).

But these types of treatments may not work for everyone, can lead to unwanted side effects, or can be tiresome. Recent research has investigated alternative methods for easing chronic pain, one of these being music therapy.

“Accordion” to the research…

Research has largely supported the idea that music can be used as a powerful tool for reducing pain perception and improving patient outcomes. In 2015, a study analysed the effects of music on a group of 37 participants with fibromyalgia, having 21 of them listen to music for 25 minutes each day for a total of 14 days. They found that in those 14 days, the 21 participants in the intervention group reported significantly lower pain severity on days 1, 7, and 14.

In another study (2007) surveying 318 participants with chronic pain, researchers also found listening to music is beneficial for those who suffer from long-term pain.

Additionally, this study found it benefits the overall quality of life of the participants as well. Those participants who listen to music more frequently and perceive it as personally important end up enjoying their lives more, having more energy, feeling less depressed and in need of medical treatment less often. As chronic pain can be debilitating and make it difficult to accomplish even the simplest of tasks, it can also have a significant impact on mood and quality of life. This can often lead to depression and social isolation. But because music is able to provide such relief to those with chronic pain, it is also able to subsequently aid in improving the mood and quality of life of those who use this as therapy.

And just for good measure…

Chronic pain is not only a physical issue. It is just as much of a mental and emotional battle as it is a physical one. It can be a great source of anxiety and stress, which then exacerbates the experience of pain. This causes a never-ending back-and-forth of issues, with anxiety and stress causing more pain, and then more pain causing more anxiety and stress, repeating until you are in a spiral of both physical and mental anguish.

Fortunately, music therapy has got that covered for you too.

Music has a calming effect on the body, which can allow you to regulate your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure (essentially, whatever you need to relax), and reduce those levels of stress and anxiety. It can also serve as a distraction, directing attention away from that awful pain to something that is more enjoyable, like a pleasant song.

A 2010 study sought to evaluate the effectiveness of music therapy interventions on pain as well as anxiety control for 100 participants that were undergoing bone marrow biopsy and aspiration. Once again, results not only showed that participants who listened to music had lower pain levels than those who didn’t, but significantly lower levels of anxiety to boot.

These findings show that not only those with chronic pain, but those undergoing surgical procedures can benefit from music therapy as well. By reducing anxiety levels in addition to pain perception, music therapy has shown time and time again that it is a viable method for helping patients feel more comfortable and at ease during procedures, potentially reducing the need for pesky pain medications.

Not Always Music to Our Ears

Just like anything else, music therapy is not a "one size fits all" method for treating chronic pain. It serves as more of a tailored treatment that can be really effective for some, and not as much for others. Music therapy also tends to work best when in tandem with other treatments and it’s not really meant to be used as a standalone.

Also, music therapy is not widely available as it should be at the moment, and in many healthcare settings, depending on where you live, may not be covered by your insurance either. This makes it quite difficult to receive, even if you are hell-bent on having that specific method of therapy, it just may unfortunately not be an option for you.

Still, some patients might not respond to music therapy, even though it has been shown to be effective for many patients. It may be that music therapy does not help the situation, or that the pain is not responding well to the intervention, it could be as simple as that.

Pain, Pain, Go Away

Music therapy is a promising, low-cost, and non-invasive intervention for those experiencing chronic pain. Of course, like with anything, it does still have its drawbacks that need to be considered when assessing each individual’s situation. Despite this though, its ability to help not only physical pain but also emotional wellbeing should not be understated. While more research is needed to fully comprehend the exact mechanisms behind the effects of music therapy on pain, the existing evidence conveys in no uncertain terms that it can be a viable alternative treatment that can benefit many patients suffering from chronic pain.

As famous musician Frank Zappa once quipped "Music is the best!". And as short and succinct as that quote is, he’s right; when it comes to dealing with chronic pain, I think he was onto something.

Use the beautiful art of music to manage your pain, it may make life even just a teensy bit more enjoyable. After all, as the saying goes…

"Without music, life would B-flat!"

Frank Zappa, L'Hotel, Rue des Beaux Arts, Paris, 1980


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