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Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, wrote the English poet William Congreve in 1697. And it also has the ability to stimulate immune response and relieve pain better than medications, a newly published meta-analysis confirms.

More and more doctors are using music to help their patients control pain without medications. And more and more scientific studies are backing them up.

A study at the Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Göteborg, a major medical center in Sweden, found that children aged 7 to 16 who were allowed to listen to music after surgery needed less morphine and reported lower levels of anxiety.

A study at the RSC School of Nursing in Gwalior in India found that toddlers who had the opportunity to listen to music experience less pain and distress when given immunizations.

Researchers at the Weill Cornell School of Medicine in New York cite a study of women who have rheumatoid arthritis who listen to their favorite music 20 minutes a day, finding it reduces pain. And mulitple studies have documented benefits of listening to music while undergoing procedures in the dentist's chair.

Altogether, at the time this article is being written, at least 724 studies in the mainstream medical literature document various benefits of music for pain relief.

Dr. Daniel Levitin of the Psychology Department at McGill University in Canada makes some general conclusions:

  • Both words and music can relieve pain, but the brain picks up rhythms in music that it does not as readily recognize in speech. This doesn't mean that a nurse singing off key will necessarily make a patient feel better, but it's the rhythm, rather than the melody, that has the greatest anti-pain effect in the brain. As a result, even deaf people respond to music.
  • Music has especially strong effects in two parts of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens and the hypothalamus. Music leads to changes in the hypothalamus that in turn change how the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary and adrenal glands for the manufacture of stress hormones.
  • The brain continues to respond to music even when a piece is complete. There are at least a few seconds in which the right brain continues to be more and more activated by music even after the playing or performance is over.
  • Music helps people understand social relationships. A study in which Dr. Levitin collaborated found that highly functional teens with autistic spectrum disorder were better able to attribute social relationships to characters in a television program when there was music in the soundtrack. Understanding social relationships may relieve emotional pain caused by difficulties in social interaction. And perhaps most interestingly of all,
  • The power of music to relieve pain depends on a mixture of familiarity and surprise. The most soothing music is surprising, but not too surprising.

Also surprising are Dr. Levitin and colleagues' findings on the effects of music on the immune system.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Bekhuis T. Music therapy may reduce pain and anxiety in children undergoing medical and dental procedures. J Evid Based Dent Pract. 2009 Dec. 9(4):213-4. doi: 10.1016/j.jebdp.2009.03.002.
  • Nilsson S, Kokinsky E, Nilsson U, Sidenvall B, Enskär K. School-aged children's experiences of postoperative music medicine on pain, distress, and anxiety. Paediatr Anaesth. 2009 Dec. 19(12):1184-90. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-9592.2009.03180.x. Epub 2009 Oct 23.
  • Schorr JA. Music and pattern of change in chronic pain. Adv Nurs Sci. 1993. 15:27–36.
  • Photo courtesy of lsuchick142 on Flickr:
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