Can Music Reduce Chronic Back Pain?

pain relief through musicArguments for and against music therapy vary almost as much as music itself varies. How does one know, skeptics ask, indeed how can one know which type of music is best for a patient? Nevertheless, evidence in favor of music’s therapeutic value is mounting. Patients suffering from chronic pain who were exposed to music for an hour a day reported a significant reduction not only in their pain, but also in their depression and perceived disability.

These findings were reported in the June 2006 issue of the Journal for Advanced Nursing, and came on the heels of a similar study undertaken at a Colombian University. This previous study had concluded that while patients listening to music could expect some benefits, these effects were small, calling into question their clinical importance.

Questioning the root of it

It is simply taken as a given that we respond emotionally to different types of music, otherwise the studies arguably wouldn’t have been initiated in the first place. Yet we know that our brain’s opioid system is linked to emotional triggers, and therefore has a hand in controlling pain that is emotional as well as physical. After all of this, the question remains: Is it actually the music that is responsible?

One may say that the effect is due purely to relaxation. This would be a fair thing to speculate on if it weren’t for the fact that studies on relaxation yielded conflicting results–likely due to the variety of relaxation methods used, which may have fogged the data a bit. Nevertheless, results led experts to conclude that current evidence does not support a predictable effect of relaxation on pain.

What’s on your playlist

Interestingly enough, the type of music used in the therapy sessions seemed to influence results. Music that was chosen by the patients had less of an effect on pain reduction than music chosen by the physicians. This sheds light on an important discussion that remains to be had: If certain types of music do influence the brain’s pain response, which factors contribute to this? For instance, would Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor have the same effect as, say, the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine?” We also know that much of the power in music we love or hate lies in its ability to trigger memories.

Not to mention the plain fact that some pieces of music just sound happier or sadder than others. A scene in Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, depicts one character as saying, “It’s in D minor, which is widely known as the saddest of all keys.” It’s an in-joke for musicians, but there is a kernel of truth in it. The aforementioned Bach Toccata is stereotypical haunted house music.

All in the mind

Then there’s the placebo effect. A main tenet of the effect is the foreknowledge a patient has of the treatment’s ostensible efficacy. Furthermore, some hold the theory that the very process of administering the placebo has much to do with its effect. Caring, attention, hopefulness, and encouragement by the physician affect the expectations of the subject, triggering the appropriate neurotransmitter releases.


The recent study holds promise. If nothing else, it demonstrates the significant effect music is capable of having on us. Many patients have reported an improvement in their chronic pain when they listen to music, whether that pain is caused by previous injuries, varicose veins, aging, arthritis, etc. That is enough to place the issue into the hands of serious scientists, and in fact may be the key to understanding the results of future studies. In the meantime, in the eyes of many who suffer from chronic pain, music–what the composer Frederick Delius called “an outburst of the soul”–is a melodious air on which the last hope floats.

The author of this article, Nicole is an expert in the health  industry. She recommends Intermountain Vein Center as a great varicose vein treatment clinic.

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