the power of music therapy for pain

The power of Music Therapy for Pain

 I grew up in a family where music was very important. In fact the ability to read music was considered an essential skill that must be developed. From a young age my afternoons involved listening to my sisters practice piano and soon enough my turn came to take piano lessons. I hated every minute of piano lessons and made my teacher’s life a living hell, but they did succeed in furthering my appreciation for music. Though I never gained much talent in playing the piano, I quickly latched onto music as a way to express and feel my emotions. I wanted to further my music education and stubbornness wouldn’t allow me to pursue singing (because my sisters did), so instead I developed the ability to play several instruments. Along the way I played the clarinet, the flute, the saxophone, and for a brief period the french horn.

I kept up my music education until I graduated from high school and lost my access to any instruments. In college I worked in the student center which had several piano practice rooms. I would longingly listen to the people practicing and wished I could do the same, but because my skill level is poor and everyone can hear you practicing I never did it. As I got older and more established I began to long for a piano of my own so I could practice and improve my skill, and a few years ago I was able to get one. I was thrilled to have music in my house once again, even if it wasn’t particularly skilled music. But then the summer came and the problems with my hands stopped me from playing. I’ve made periodic attempts at playing since then, but it’s rare that I can manage more than a couple songs, even on my good days.

Losing my ability to create music was very difficult. So many of my emotions are reflected in music. On a really bad day I could play “Moonlight Sonata” and get out my grumpy feelings. On a happy day I could play “Pachebel’s cannon” and revel in my happiness. For a long time I just dropped music, disgusted my inability to produce any and thinking that I could no longer enjoy it like I used to. I felt depressed even by listening to others expressing themselves through their art. Until one day about 6 months ago when I was listening to Les Miserables “I dreamed a dream,” a song I’ve heard a million times, but still managed to make me cry that day. It made me realize that music still had the ability to effect my emotions, even if I wasn’t playing it.  Since then I have used other people’s music to affect my moods. When I’m feeling weighed down by my illness and my inability to control it, I listen to something light and airy. When I’m feeling sad and need to be held, I listen to something haunting. When I’m feeling alone and burdened I listen to friendly music which eases my burdens.

I believe in the power of music therapy. I’m not sold on it improving my physical health significantly, but I absolutely think it improves mental health. Music therapy has been shown to distract people from pain, raise seratonin levels, and reduce stress hormones like cortisol.*  Additionally,

In managing chronic pain music therapy sensory stimulation that evokes a response in the patient. When the body encounters something painful — you step on a tack, for instance — electrochemical signals travel from the site of the injury to the spinal cord and on to the brain. There, several brain regions work together to process pain signals — ultimately resulting in the conscious experience of, “Ow, that hurts!” In contrast, brain scans reveal that listening to pleasing music increases activity in parts of the brain’s reward center. “Pleasant music triggers the release of the brain chemical dopamine,” explains Robert Zatorre, of McGill University, who studies emotion and music. This change “is strongly associated with other rewarding and motivating stimuli, such as food, sex, and certain addictive drugs,” Zatorre adds. Scientists believe that music’s ability to make you feel good may be one way it helps to alleviate pain.*

Trained music therapists use music therapy as a means of conditioning the patient to relax and release pain and stress  Though I’ve never had an actual music therapist, I know music often helps to distract me from pain. It’s easy for me to get lost in the music and temporarily forget how much pain I’m in. Music therapists take it a few steps further by getting patients to make music, write songs, discuss music and lyrics, and use music to meditate. Unfortunately there are not a lot of established music therapy programs and the therapy is of course not covered by insurance, but as a chronic pain patient there are a lot of ways I can use music for pain on my own.  On a bad day I can often feel my pain levels start to ramp up. When that happens I can use music to defray the pain a little bit or to help improve my mood when the pain makes me depressed.  At the end of the day, music is just part of a long list for coping mechanisms for pain, but it’s a potentially effective option that costs little and doesn’t involve medication, which is always a positive in my book.


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3 thoughts on “The power of Music Therapy for Pain

  1. I love this. I don't think we have a very thorough understanding of how music affects us (beside Mozart making us smart, of course). It's so visceral. Playing the piano was a very effective outlet for me when I was younger, and "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" and Dario Marianelli's Pride & Prejudice soundtrack got me through a rough period a few years ago.

    1. I admit to stealing Megan's Pride and Prejudice soundtrack and piano music on a regular basis, they really made me happy! I think you're right, we really don't understand all that music does for us, so many people think that music is just "extra."

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