Have the lyrics to a song ever hit home with you? A rough breakup, losing your job, the death of a loved one, all perpetuate an overflow of feelings in us. An exciting new relationship, new car euphoria or even winning a minor league baseball game can do the same. Humans have a wide range of emotions and emotional triggers. For example, when I have a rough day at work, I come home to my FiOS internet deals and put on some Beatles. Nothing helps me deal with life like the Beatles or The Smiths or even The Rolling Stones. I used to think its because I just have an affinity for classic rock. But a recent research on how the music you like can help you deal with pain blew my mind.
Pain and the Brain
Globally, more than 1.5 billion people suffer from a chronic pain condition. In America, chronic pain is one of the most noteworthy health issues, affecting over 100 million Americans. Pain is a distressful physical symptom, which in some cases can be triggered by psychological conditions like depression and anxiety. The sensation of pain is primarily dependent on the brain. The brain is responsible for determining a sensation as pain. It is also responsible for how meaningful that pain is and whether the pain can be handled. Proper medication and care are undoubtedly important in order to manage chronic pain. But too often, these approaches fail to reduce the severity or alleviate moods associated with pain. Medication can also be costly and come with complicated side effects. Music offers a new avenue to treat chronic pain.
Music as Therapy
Using music as therapy for chronic pain has a number of immediately obvious advantages. Music is low-to-no cost, with many streaming services and platforms that allow uninterrupted listening. Music can prove to be a distraction from acute discomfort or pain. Listening to music has no harmful side effects to speak of. In fact, music has shown a reduction in pain ratings by patients as well as distressful feelings. In fact, according to research some time ago, music listeners experience a reduction in the use of opioid-based medication.
How does Music affect the Brain?
Recent studies have found that music activates certain areas of the brain. Specifically, the areas associated with reward, arousal and of course, emotion. One possible reason why music is such an effective pain treatment is that it triggers the brain to release its own opioids. These natural opioids are efficient at reducing painful sensations. Until recently, there were no studies that could definitively demonstrate the effect of music on specific brain areas. In contrast, several studies have shown changes in specific brain activities as a response to pain. However, Christine Dobek’s study offers unique insights.
An experiment on Music and Pain
A recent study published in The Journal of Pain has examined how music alters the brain’s response to pain. Christine Dobek and others used functional MRI to closely examine how the brain’s response to pain can be altered with another stimulus, that is music. In the study, 12 women underwent fMRI of multiple brain areas and the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. The study also examined if the brain areas associated with emotion and reward would respond to music. Each subject was exposed to alternating periods of music and no music while the pain was stimulated in the hand. Participants were also screened for any psychiatric problems that might affect their pain perception.
The participants of the study were asked to rate their favorite music in the categories of happy, pleasant, relaxed and calm. Music that was either pleasant, relaxed or calm was found to have the biggest impact on pain reduction. Additionally, pain ratings were much lower in the “music” period than in the “no music” period. An association between music and the release of dopamine and body opioids was also established. Furthermore, significant changes in the spinal cord, brainstem and the brain itself were observed in the “music” period. This strongly suggests the presence of “descending pain modulation” or the brain changing the experience of pain.
The Bottom Line
While the details and nuances of the entire study cannot be enumerated in this blog, the published study itself can be found by consulting The Journal of Pain, 15(10), 1057-1068. The bottom line is that listening to music you like can significantly reduce pain and discomfort. Specifically, music that you find calm, relaxing or pleasant is most helpful to alter your brain’s reaction to pain. It helps to both decrease the severity of the pain as well as improve your coping ability. Your pain-management routine is incomplete without your favorite music. That’s why I use my Optimum cable service to stream music on-demand whenever I feel distressed.