Chronic Pain Treatment and Music Therapy

Chronic pain can be decreased by modalities other than pain-killing medicine, but any contribution to chronic pain treatment is welcome to persons suffering with ongoing pain. Exercise, yoga, meditation, massage, use of heat and cold are a few ways to reduce pain. Another chronic pain treatment that is less publicized is using music. Exactly how music decreases pain is not yet known, but many studies have found that music lessens the sensation of pain that is reported, and observations of clients after music is used often confirm this. 

A study published in the Journal of Public Nursing found that music can significantly ease a patient’s perception of chronic pain. Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation examined the effects of music on 60 patients who had been experiencing chronic pain for over six years. The patients were divided into two groups and one group listened to music on headphones daily for an hour. The researchers found that pain levels were reduced by 21% in the music listening group. They also found a 25% drop in depression linked to pain. The researchers said patients felt the pain less debilitating during chronic pain treatment done with music.  

There are more studies that need to be done to understand how music for works for chronic pain therapy. Recent brain research using functional MRI’s have shown that music involves much more of the brain than had been known before, in fact, all major areas of the brain are involved with listening to music. Even more areas of the brain and the body become involved when participation in music therapy is added, whether just choosing songs to hear, discussing lyrics, or playing or clapping along in rhythm.

Music has been shown in other studies to lower reported pain in post-operative patients as well as lowering emotional distress. Some hospitals are using different selected music in different areas to reduce pain in post-op, to lessen the pain of birthing, and to lessen distress of loved ones waiting for patients in surgery. Dentists often use music to soothe their patients and lessen anxiety.

There are many theories as to why music is so effective as a form of chronic pain therapy.  Brain research may contribute to definite answers. Some say music may act to release endorphins, including hormones that counteract pain. Others say slower music may relax a person by slowing heart rate and breathing. Another theory is that music distracts a person’s attention from the pain. Making choices about music may also contribute to a sense of control, which may be very welcome when feeling controlled by pain. Some new brain discoveries, such as the existence of mirror neurons which fire in response to hearing or seeing reactions in others, may offer further clues.

Whatever the mechanisms involved in its beneficial effects, music therapy can be a non-medicine aid to reduce chronic pain and the accompanying emotional distress.  

For more information about chronic pain treatment and music therapy get a copy of the book Still a Minstrel.



"Readers will enjoy the struggles of a garage band to the bandstand with local and world-renowned legends. Suess guides us through those years as the music changed us and we reflected those changes in our music"

- Doug Spartz, Founder,
Minnesota Rock/Country Hall of Fame


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