It’s no secret that listening to music has a ton of benefits: It can raise your moods, it can pump you up before a workout, and it can connect you with people through shared musical tastes. But here’s another nifty trick that music’s got up its sleeve: It can help the human brain manage physical pain. Although you won’t be able to get a pharmaceutical prescription for music anytime soon, the fact that it’s free and plentiful makes it a unique – and in some cases, quite effective – form of pain reduction therapy. (Bonus: It hurts way less than a needle.)
Let’s take a look at how this phenomenon works, and do a quick dive into how you can utilize music to mentally alleviate your aches and pains.
How it works
The key is in the distraction that music creates. And it’s not only in literal terms, like how music can drown out the sound of a dentist’s drill – it’s how the brain works when multiple factors are competing for its attention. If you’re focused on musical arrangements, lyrics and instrumentation, then there’s a good chance that you might be able to forget – or at least not notice – external pain.
Similarly, listening to music enables a certain amount of dissociation from the body, and when you’re truly “lost in the music,” you may notice less outside stimuli – and that includes pain. An article at WebMD discusses a 2011 experiment that studied how listening to music can affect how the brain perceives physical pain: “In a new study, 143 people listened to music while they received a painful shock in their fingertip. Participants were asked to follow the melodies, and identify unusual tones in an effort to take their mind off the pain…Participants’ pain decreased as they became more and more absorbed in the tunes. Those who were the most anxious reaped the most pain-relieving benefits when they became engaged in the music.”
Although it can be difficult to scientifically measure how much pain relief is being received, the WebMD article notes that researchers measured electrical activity in the brain along with pupil dilation to get a solid sense of how music helps with pain management, along with anxiety and stress.
How you can use it
Of course, you’re not going to turn to a type of music you hate if you’re looking to take your mind off aches and pains. “In terms of pain, it is important that you listen to music that you already know and like,” says Peter Vuust of the Center for Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN). “When you’re in pain, you need a familiar setting in which you can navigate, and if you can do that with music you know and like.” In other words, you should plug in favorite songs that you’re familiar with, so you can zone out and let your brain enjoy the music rather than zooming in on the physical pain spots.
One caveat: A study had subjects report that music with pleasant tones (consonance) eased the pain more than music with clashing tones (dissonance) – citing that “although musical taste is subjective, there are common features of music that evoke fairly universal responses.” So even if you count heavy metal bands as your favorites, you might want to try some soft classical as pain therapy instead – or alternate between the two to see which gives you the most distraction.
Next time you have a small injury, or even something like a Band-Aid that needs removing, put on either your favorite song or a gentle-sounding classical track and see which tune takes you away from your pain. You might be surprised by the result!
Although the evidence that music assists in pain therapy is minimal right now, there is still enough proof from both studies and patient testimony that listening to music can work as a means of distraction from pain. And while it may not take the place of traditional medicine, as Peter Vuust notes, “If music can help us to lower the doses of pain medication, that’s fantastic.”
Which song would you choose to help keep your mind off injury? Let us know in the comments!