5 Aug 2022

Listening to right kind of music could alleviate chronic pain

From First Up, 5:39 am on 5 August 2022

Listening to music you enjoy – and especially music that you've chosen – can help alleviate chronic pain, according to new research.

Music has been used as a pain therapy for decades, says University of London psychology professor Claire Howlin, but she and her colleagues wanted to better understand how it works.

'We know that [music can reduce pain] for some people in some circumstances but we wanted to know what was really behind this," she tells Nathan Rarere.

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In Howlin's study – the first to look at how music can affect chronic pain – 286 adults experiencing real-world, acute pain rated their pain levels before and after listening to a music track.

The results showed listening to a piece of music you really dislike won't help your experience of pain at all.

The best music for relieving the intensity of their pain is what you personally choose or believe you've chosen.

Music that alleviates pain doesn't have to be of a certain type, Howlin says.

High-tempo and low-tempo versions of the same song had an equal effect on participants, she says, and some had great relief from pain when listening to heavy metal, heavy rock and fast-paced dance music.

The experience of music and the experience of pain both have a lot of emotional and personal components, Howlin says and both take up quite a large proportion of our brains. 

It seems hearing music de-intensifies the sensation of pain because our brains can't focus on both experiences at once, she says.

'When you're really focused on your favourite music it reduces your brain's processing capacity for the pain so it's very difficult for [the experience of both pain and music] to be happening at the same time in your brain. So you're kind of switching it to focus on this more positive energy.

'You still might be aware of physical sensation but may be able to feel it's more positive."

In the future, we may hear music at doctor's offices and pharmacies – something The College of London is now experimenting with, Howlin says.

"No point in telling people 'this will be good for your health' unless people can get access to it. So [music is] the next frontier for public health."


How the mind and body experience pain

How listening to music can relieve pain

Understanding chronic pain