Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Music Cure

The Music Cure
It can ease pain, lower blood pressure, relieve asthma, more

Barbara Reuer, PhD
MusicWorx of California

Special from Bottom Line/Personal

Music has been used for healing for thousands of years -- and numerous recent studies confirm its healing powers. It can reduce pain and anxiety and improve blood pressure and breathing. It even can help infants in neonatal intensive care units gain weight faster. Here’s how you can use music to improve your mental and physical health...

Music therapy can relieve pain and decrease the need for painkilling drugs. It seems to be most effective for short-term pain, such as during dental procedures, after surgery, etc. A study published in European Journal of Anesthesiology reported that postsurgical patients who listened to music required less morphine.
It also helps some types of chronic pain. A study published in Journal of Advanced Nursing found that listening to music for an hour a day reduced chronic pain by up to 21% and depression by up to 25%.
How it helps: People in pain can’t focus on opposing sensations simultaneously. Listening to music helps block the perception of pain signals and reduces anxiety, which can heighten pain.
Recommended: When you’re in pain, practice deep breathing while listening to a favorite piece of relaxing music. Ask your doctor to play calming background music during painful procedures. If a music therapist is available during the procedure, he/she might play music while guiding you through a visualization exercise (such as imagining a peaceful scene) or encouraging you to breathe more deeply.

Music therapy is used in some coronary care units to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Music also lowers levels of stress chemicals (such as cortisol) that increase the risk for a heart attack.
Recommended: At least once a day, listen to music that you find relaxing. Pay attention to the melodies, rhythms and words... think about what the music means to you... and notice the physical signs of relaxation.

A type of therapy called neurologic music therapy can help patients with neurological deficits that are caused by stroke, Parkinson’s disease, etc.
Example: Parkinson’s patients often walk with an uneven gait, which makes it difficult for them to get around and increases the risk for falls. With rhythmic auditory stimulation, therapists play music (or use a metronome) during walking exercises. This helps the brain stimulate skeletal muscles and coordinate movements, creating a more even stride.
The same technique is used with stroke patients, who often lose control of one side of the body. The unaffected brain hemisphere processes the music, “translating” the beat into physical movements. A music therapist, along with a physical therapist, can determine a patient’s gait pattern and use music at certain tempos to help the patient improve his gait.
Singing also is helpful. Stroke patients who have lost the ability to speak sometimes can sing. A music therapist can use singing exercises to help patients recover speech skills.

People with advanced Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia often are closed off in a private world. They may be confused and/or hostile. Playing music that was popular in their youth will sometimes make them more “present”... make it easier for them to remember the past... and will evoke a positive emotional response.
How it helps: The moments of lucidity provoked by music can reduce anxiety and make patients feel better. The sessions can be conducted when family members are present. This gives them a chance to reconnect, at least briefly, with loved ones.

In addition to listening to music, active music-making can be an effective component of music therapy. People who sing or play a wind instrument gain additional strength/flexibility in muscles in the chest wall. Improved muscle flexibility, called elastance, allows them to take deeper breaths with less fatigue.
Example: It’s common for patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to take unusually shallow breaths. Singing or playing a wind instrument trains them to breathe more deeply... helps clear mucus from the lungs... and helps establish normal breathing rhythms. One study found that children who completed singing exercises had increased peak respiratory flow rates, a measure of lung health.
Recommended: Learn to play the harmonica. It’s often used to help pulmonary patients exercise the chest-wall muscles and develop good breath control. Playing the harmonica requires a slow breath in and out, so it enables patients to focus on their breathing in a way that improves respiratory function. Harmonicas and instruction books can be found at most music stores.

There are now more than 70 four-year degree programs approved by the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). There are more than 5,000 board-certified music therapists who work in hospitals, pain clinics, hospice settings, etc. About 20% of music-therapy services are reimbursed by insurance plans.
How it works: A doctor, nurse or social worker may request music therapy for patients on a case-by-case basis. The therapist meets with the patient and assesses his/her needs. Is the patient depressed, in pain or anxious? Is he having trouble walking or breathing? The therapist then decides how the patient can benefit -- physically and emotionally -- from the treatments.
To find a music therapist, go to the AMTA site,

Many music stores offer therapeutic music CDs and cassettes and may have a section labeled “health,” “new age,” “wellness,” etc. Try to sample the music first to make sure you like it. Personal preference is important -- if you find the music unpleasant, it won’t be helpful to you. Good Web sites for therapeutic music include and

Bottom Line/Personal interviewed Barbara Reuer, PhD, founder and CEO of MusicWorx of California, a music-therapy consulting agency in San Diego, She is past president of the American Music Therapy Association and has worked in medical and psychiatric settings for more than 35 years.

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