After undergoing major surgery, children who listened to 30 minutes of music or an audio book experienced a significant reduction in pain, according to new research by Northwestern Medicine.
The participants, ages nine to 14, chose from a playlist of short audio books or top music in different genres including pop, country, rock, and classical.
Finding a way to control post-surgical pain without medication is vital because opioid analgesics — the most commonly used to control post-surgical pain — can cause breathing problems in children. Therefore, opioid use is limited, and children’s pain is not well controlled.
“Audio therapy is an exciting opportunity and should be considered by hospitals as an important strategy to minimize pain in children undergoing major surgery,” said study senior author Santhanam Suresh, M.D. “This is inexpensive and doesn’t have any side effects.”
Suresh conducted the study with his daughter, Sunitha Suresh, who designed it when she was a biomedical engineering student at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science with a minor in music cognition.
For the study, about 60 pediatric patients at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago received pain evaluations both before and after receiving the audio therapy. They reported their pain levels based on identifying facial images such as a grimace or tears or a happy face to illustrate how they were feeling.
The children were divided into three groups: The first group listened to 30 minutes of music of their choice, the second group listened to 30 minutes of stories of their choice, and the third group listened to 30 minutes of silence via noise-canceling headphones.
The patients in the music and story groups had a significant reduction in pain. The patients who heard silence did not experience a change in pain.
Santhanam Suresh believes the audio-therapy helped thwart a secondary pathway in the prefrontal cortex involved in the memory of pain.
“There is a certain amount of learning that goes on with pain,” he said. “The idea is, if you don’t think about it, maybe you won’t experience it as much. We are trying to cheat the brain a little bit. We are trying to refocus mental channels on to something else.”
“Allowing patients to choose their own music or stories is an important part of the treatment,” Suresh said. “Everyone relates to music, but people have different preferences.”
The treatment worked regardless of a patient’s initial pain score. “It didn’t matter whether their pain score was lower or higher when they were first exposed to the audio therapy,” Suresh said. “It worked for everyone and can also be used in patients who have had ambulatory surgery and are less likely to receive opiods at home.”
“One of the most rewarding aspects of the study was the ability for patients to continue their own audio therapy,” said Sunitha Suresh. “After the study, several patients ended up bringing in their iPods and listening to their own music. They hadn’t thought of it before.”
An unexpected finding was the equal effectiveness of the audiobooks compared to music, noted Sunitha Suresh.
“Some parents commented that their young kids listening to audio books would calm down and fall asleep, “she said. “It was a soothing and distracting voice.”
The study is published in the journal Pediatric Surgery.
Source: Northwestern University