A new study based on real-world experience suggests that the musical preferences of people with chronic pain may be a better way to treat their discomfort, as they pay more attention if they listen to their favourite tunes. In contrast, the tempo, energy or complexity of the songs seem to have less influence on remission.
Edgar Hans Cano 4/8/2022 08:00 CEST
The popular refrain has several examples of how music can have a positive impact on people, and science has analysed this influence on several occasions. Now, recent work by Anglo-Saxon researchers explores its use in relieving chronic pain.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, concludes that people who believe they are in control of the track they listen to experience less distress than those who have a particular song imposed on them.
“People’s preferences turn out to be the essential aspect of musical engagement in promoting pain relief. If a song we like is played, our neural reward system is stimulated and motivates us to keep listening, which may be important for alleviating pain,” Claire Howlin, from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and first author of the study, tells SINC.
Another neural area linked to music for pain relief is the default mode network, which comes into play when we refocus our attention from external stimuli to more internal stimuli, such as memories or reflexes, making the discomfort seem less intense.
Lyric and rhythm against chronic pain
According to the authors, listening to music is helpful in relieving discomfort, especially chronic ailments, the effects of which persist for more than 12 weeks. It is unclear whether these benefits occur in cases of acute (less prolonged) afflictions, as there is no clear information on the underlying mechanisms that trigger such benefits.
In parallel, essential musical properties such as tempo, energy or complexity of songs seem to play a minor role in generating more or less relief. What is relevant is the feeling of being able to decide what is listened to, as listeners pay more attention and care if they feel they have this control.
What is important for pain relief is feeling able to decide what you listen to, as listeners pay more attention and care if they feel they have this control.
“People find benefits in different types of music (metal, techno, classical, etc.) depending on their preferences. Beyond this aspect, they also take into account the intensity of their pain and the type of activity they would like to do, such as exercising or going to sleep, for example,” says Howlin.
The keys: complexity and decision-making
To arrive at these results, Howlin and colleagues asked 286 adults with acute pain to rate their discomfort before and after randomly listening to a music track with two versions, one more complex and one simpler. In addition, some of them were led to believe that they had some control over the musical qualities of both tracks.
Thus, they were able to confirm that individuals who felt they were in control of what they were listening to and were more actively engaged experienced greater relief in the intensity of their pain than participants who were not given that impression. At the same time, they ruled out that the complexity of the subject matter was something to be taken into account in the quantification of relief.
Current therapeutic limits and future research
“A key limitation for chronic pain is that some neural lesions can cause acute pain when music is played. As a result, sufferers experience no benefit,” says Howlin.
As for the future, the relationship between music choice and pain relief, and strategies to enhance that relationship, could be explored further.
“We don’t yet know the optimal time to listen to music. We don’t know how often or for how long people need to listen to music to get the benefits, or whether different schedules should be used depending on the individuals affected or the types of discomfort,” the researcher concludes.