Jamming to your favorite tunes? It could work as a painkiller - study

Music is becoming more widely recognized as a pain management tool, but scientists still question which aspect of the music is driving the pain-killing benefits.

 Man listening to music with headphones (Illustrative) (photo credit: STOCKSNAP)
Man listening to music with headphones (Illustrative)
(photo credit: STOCKSNAP)

Chronic pain can be debilitating if left untreated, and treatments come in all forms. A new, seemingly unconventional form of treatment - listening to music - was explored by Dr. Claire Howlin of Queen Mary University of London, UK, and her colleagues from University College Dublin, Ireland.

Music is becoming more widely recognized as a pain management tool, but scientists still question which aspect of the music is driving the pain-killing benefits.

"It’s likely that people listen more closely, or more carefully when they choose the music themselves.”

Dr. Howlin and the study authors

The peer-reviewed study, published on August 3 in the journal PLOS ONE, contains data collected from 286 adults experiencing acute pain. In preparation for their project, researchers collaborated with a commercial artist to create a piece of music that could be manipulated for the purposes of experiment. 

Howlin and her fellow researchers predicted that there was little -if anything- inherent in the music itself that contained analgesic properties. Rather, the listener's ability to choose their music and the process of active cognitive engagement with it are the real catalysts in the equation. 

FEELING THE music at DGTL Tel Aviv. (credit: ALBERT LALAMAIEV)FEELING THE music at DGTL Tel Aviv. (credit: ALBERT LALAMAIEV)

The study authors diligently described human engagement with music, writing that "music engagement is an individual experience and there are a number of individual characteristics that influence the way that people engage with music, including one’s musical sophistication, the degree to which people experience musical reward, and an individual’s tendency to [empathize] with the emotional content in music."

Using high- and low-complexity to measure pain levels

The scientists created a low-complexity and a high-complexity version of the same piece. In this case, complexity refers to the various musical features of the piece and how sophisticated they were. 

Participants were randomly assigned to either hear the low-complexity or high-complexity version, and randomly selected to be presented with a choice of tracks (although their track was pre-determined) or to simply be given a piece to listen to.

Pain levels were measured on two counts: pain intensity and pain unpleasantness, a recognition of the fact that, according to the authors, "pain is multidimensional with both physical and emotional components." Hence, unpleasantness was the emotional aspect of the pain while intensity measured the physical sensation of pain. 

What did they find out?

The findings indicated that while complexity had no apparent effect on pain relief, feeling of control over the music very much did. Those who felt they were in control experienced greater relief in the intensity of their pain than those who were not given the illusion of choice. 

The authors concluded: “Now we know that the act of choosing music is an important part of the wellbeing benefits that we see from music listening. It’s likely that people listen more closely, or more carefully when they choose the music themselves.”

Freedom of choice, per the study's findings, are critically important to music-listening pain treatment therapies. Researchers hypothesized that the belief that one is choosing the piece motivates the listener to actively engage more deeply with the music. This engagement, in turn, is what actually lessens the pain.