A review of the evidence to date suggests that music therapy can help patients recover their movements after experiencing brain damage.
Brain damage can affect movement and language abilities, having a significant impact on quality of life. Patients may have had trauma to the head, damage following brain surgery, or a stroke. An estimated 1.5 million people in the U.S. sustain a traumatic brain injury each year, of whom 80,000 to 90,000 will be left with long-term disability.
Dr. Joke Bradt of the Arts and Quality of Life Research Center at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa., carried out a Cochrane Systematic Review of music in recovery from brain injury. She explains that the restoration of motor function is a primary concern, because improvements “directly affect the level of independence of the patient related to activities of daily living.”
Music therapists use techniques that aim to stimulate brain function controlling movement, cognition, speech, emotions and the senses. It is hoped that such therapies may also prevent depression. Methods range from rhythmic auditory stimulation (RAS), which connects rhythm and movement, to singing, and the use of music listening, music improvisation, and composition.
Listening to music is often encouraged in rehabilitation settings, but Dr. Bradt says it is important to distinguish this from music therapy interventions, as music therapists have specific clinical training and the approach is “underpinned by music therapy theory.”
Her research team reviewed seven studies involving 184 patients. All were controlled studies, meaning they compared music therapy against standard care. Four studies used stroke patients only; the remainder included other brain-injured patients. Many studies were too small to lead to statistically significant results, and were designed too differently to compare.
RAS therapy, used in three of the stroke-only studies, improved walking speed by an average of 14 meters per minute, compared to standard movement therapy. It also helped patients to take longer steps and improved arm movements, such as elbow extension.
The review states, “RAS may be beneficial for improving gait parameters in stroke patients, including gait velocity, cadence, stride length and gait symmetry. These results are encouraging, but more trials are needed before recommendations can be made.” It adds that the results agree with findings from non-controlled trials that there may be a beneficial effect of RAS.