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Can Listening to Music Help Control Pain?

A new study explores how listening to music can help control pain.

One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain. —Bob Marley

There is no disputing that the need for effective pain relief has never been greater. While we all experience pain once in a while, chronic pain (usually defined as pain lasting longer than three to six months) can be devastating for countless pain sufferers. With an estimated ten to 55 percent of people worldwide reporting chronic pain in some form, it's hardly surprising that pain relievers, particularly opiate-based pain medications, are in constant demand in countries around the world. Along with obtaining these drugs legally through a doctor's prescription, there are also street drugs that can also be used for relieving pain, including heroin and codeine, and morphine.

As an alternative to medication, non-chemical pain management techniques such as relaxation training or guided imagery can also help control pain by using distraction to reduce awareness. However, while using relaxation training or interactive media such as video games or virtual reality can help provide the distraction pain patients need, these techniques are often not as cost-effective as medication. Whether due to the expense of providing trained staff to teach relaxation techniques or the cost of specialized equipment, many physicians find it easier and cheaper to medicate. Even when pain management programs are available, the demand for treatment can mean long waiting lists and needless suffering.

But what about simpler alternatives? Research looking at the link between listening to music and pain tolerance suggests that it is not only effective in relieving acute and chronic pain but can also help patients manage anxiety and depression. According to one study from 2012, two daily sessions of music listening helped a sample of chronic pain patients relieve symptoms related to conditions such fibromyalgia, inflammatory disease, or neurological conditions as well as the anxiety and depression linked to chronic pain.

Part of the appeal of using music listening to relieve pain is that it is a simple and cost-effective approach that can be tailored to the needs of individual patients. Since emotion and pain are strongly linked, music that resonates with positive emotions triggers positive memories can also affect mood and the ability to handle pain. Listening to pleasant music can also influence how we perceive the passing of time (pleasant memories make time fly faster than unpleasant memories).

To understand more about the process by which listening to music can help relieve pain, two researchers at the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom conducted a rather novel study which was recently published in the journal Psychomusicology. Psychologists Katherine A. Finlay and Krithika Anil recruited forty-one healthy volunteers (24 women and 17 men) to take part in the study.

The participants were all in their twenties (average age of 25.98) with no history of chronic pain or other illness. On entering the laboratory where the experiment was conducted, they were all asked to remove watches to prevent them from being able to estimate how much time was passing. They then completed questionnaires measuring the levels of anxiety and pain awareness they were experiencing at that specific moment. A digital thermometer was used to measure hand temperature (you'll understand why in a moment).

During the actual experiment, each participant completed a series of trials in which their dominant arm (depending on whether they were right or left-handed) was placed in a circulatory water bath. The bath was designed to be cooled to a temperature just above freezing (0 degrees celsius or 32 degrees Fahrenheit) for up to four minutes during each trial. Participants were also given time between trials to allow their hand temperature to return to normal. To measure the level of pain they were experiencing, participants used a rating scale to indicate level of discomfort they were feeling. Also, they were asked to estimate how much time had passed for each trial as another measure of pain intensity,

Before the experiment began, the participants were asked to select music which they felt to be happy, sad, or relaxing. Each participant then went through four cold water trials during which one of the three musical selections was played versus a control condition during which no music was played. The order of trials was varied to prevent any experimenter bias. After each trial, participants rated how distracting they found the music to be and how much control they felt they had over the pain.

As expected, participants reported the greatest amount of pain during the no-music condition while listening to happy, sad, or relaxing music affected pain perception in different ways. Participants listening to happy music reported having greater pain control and being able to handle pain longer. Relaxing music reduced anxiety and overall pain intensity which made the cold water trial easier than other kinds of music. While sad music was still better than no music at all, it was not as effective as happy or relaxing music. All three kinds of music helped time pass faster than during the no-music condition since participants were more distracted while dealing with cold water.

So, why was relaxing music more effective than happy music in helping participant pass the time during cold water trials? The main benefit of relaxing music seems to be that it helps relieve anxiety and speed up subjective time so the cold water trial seems to pass much faster than in other trials. Not surprisingly, participants found sad music to be the least effective in helping to manage pain though previous research has already shown that sad music may be preferred by people who are stressed or upset.

While listening to music won't make pain go away, it can definitely help pain sufferers manage their daily lives better. Admittedly, this study focused on an artificial laboratory setting rather than the genuine chronic pain found in many medical conditions. For this reason, more research is needed to see how well music listening can work with chronic pain patients and whether it can be used in combination with mindfulness programs such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Although there are definite limits to the kind of pain relief that music listening can bring, it still can be highly useful in helping people with acute or chronic pain to function relatively normally. It may also help people in pain cut back on potentially addictive medications and allow them to handle the emotional distress daily pain can bring.

Whatever the kind of music people in pain prefer, its value as a way to help manage suffering cannot be underestimated.

Something to think about next time you're reaching for the aspirin....