Researchers have documented that listening to music can be effective for reducing pain in people who generally have high levels of anxiety. Investigators discovered music can be used as a distraction and is effective among those who can easily become absorbed in cognitive activities.

In the study, researchers from the University of Utah Pain Research Center evaluated the potential benefits of music for diverting psychological responses to experimental pain stimuli. Accordingly, the key to successful pain control from this method would be the degree of engagement by the patient in the diversion task.

One hundred forty-three subjects were evaluated for the study and were given a series of assessment measures to determine their personality characteristics and anxiety levels. Some of the subjects scored high on general anxiety measures that suggested they lived with more anxiety than the average person on a day-to-day basis. The subjects were then instructed to listen to music tracks, follow the melodies, and identify deviant tones.

During the music tasks, they were given safe, experimental pain shocks with fingertip electrodes.

The findings showed that central arousal from the pain stimuli reliably decreased with the increasing music-task demand.

Music helps reduce pain by activating sensory pathways that compete with pain pathways in the brain, stimulating emotional responses, and engaging cognitive attention. Because the music is competing with the pain pathways in the brain, it appears to help to take the focus away from pain.

Music, therefore, provided meaningful intellectual and emotional engagement to help reduce pain.

A surprise finding was that the music helped study subjects with high levels of anxiety about pain more so than subjects who were not as concerned about the pain. This finding was contrary to the initial prediction that anxiety would interfere with a subject’s ability to become absorbed in the music listening task.

Researchers noted that low anxiety actually may have diminished the ability to engage in the task. People with low general levels of anxiety may not benefit from music as a distraction from pain as much as those who have higher levels of general anxiety.

The discovery that anxiety appears to aid engagement with a distraction is considered a new finding, according to the scientists. Further, the researchers believe that this association implies that these personality characteristics should be considered when recommending engagement strategies for pain relief. Anxiety and other personality factors have generally not been taking into consideration when considering pain relief strategies.

Source: American Pain Society

The research effort is published in the The Journal of Pain .

Music photo by shutterstock.