Can Music Be a Pain Reliever?

Sep 20, 2017

Music is a form of art. We listen to it for entertainment and pleasure. But did you know that music can also be a cure for the body and soul? It is an activity that involves using the brain. Although people have their own musical preferences, and not all music has favourable effects for each individual, for the most part, it heals.

More Focus, Less Pain

One way of music to reduce pain is competing for our attention. One study showed that the key to using music to reduce pain is active listening. David Bradshaw, a psychologist of the Pain Research Center at the University of Utah says, “If you’re thinking about something else, then you’re not thinking about your pain, and you feel less pain.”

His team of researchers had participants listen to specific childhood melodies and their task was to note errors in the songs. As the participants receive electric shocks and pain levels increased, there were changes in their brain and their brain waves also increased.

However, when the participants focused on their task, their brain waves decreased while receiving electric shocks. This also shows that their perception of pain decreased as well.

It implies that you’ll feel less pain if you’re paying attention to something else. The more you’re actively engaged in music, the less pain you’ll feel.

Music as a Self-Reward

Another study shows otherwise when it comes to brain activity. Listening to a piece of music that pleases you increases activity in parts of the brain’s reward centre.

Robert Zatorre, who studies emotion and music at McGill University says, “Pleasant music triggers the release of the brain chemical dopamine.” Scientists believe that the ability of music to make you feel good helps decrease pain.

Pleasant Music vs. Unpleasant Music

Music also has the ability to interfere with pain signals before they get to the brain. Scientists examine how various kinds of music change the withdrawal reflex. The study was conducted by Mathieu Roy, a psychologist from the University of Colorado, Boulder. They measured how forcefully participants withdrew their feet after being mildly electrically zapped on their ankles while listening to music. They found that unpleasant music resulted in stronger leg reflexes and higher reports of pain compared to when listening to pleasant music.

The effectiveness of music in making us feel better perhaps lies in how it affects how our nervous system functions, which then affects our thoughts and emotions. Anything that distracts us from pain may be a good pain reliever when we focus on it, and music may be particularly powerful when it comes to this. What’s great about this is that once we understand how music affects pain, we can heal ourselves using it.

Music is safe, inexpensive, and easy to use. If you’re in pain, it’s worth a try to make yourself feel better by listening to music. Just choose the music that suits your taste, your mood and your activity.

Or how about doing your exercise program given by your physiotherapist while listening to your favourite music?

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Bradshaw DH, Donaldson GW, Jacobson RC, Nakamura Y, Chapman CR. Individual Differences in the Effects of Music Engagement on Responses to Painful Stimulation. The Journal of Pain. 2011;12(12):1262-1273. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2011.08.010.

Blood AJ, Zatorre RJ. Intensely Pleasurable Responses To Music Correlate with Activity In Brain Regions Implicated in Reward and Emotion. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science of the United States of America. Sep 25; 98(20):11818-23 (2001).

Roy M, Peretz I, Rainville P. Emotional Valence Contributes to Music-Induced Analgesia. Pain. Jan 134(1-2):140-7 (2008).