To Ease Pain, Reach For Your Playlist

Jun 22, 2015
Originally published on April 15, 2016 8:32 am

We all know that listening to music can soothe emotional pain, but Taylor Swift, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys can also ease physical pain, according to a study of children and teenagers who had major surgery.

The analgesic effects of music are well known, but most of the studies have been done with adults and most of the music has been classical. Now a recent study finds that children who choose their own music or audiobook to listen to after major surgery experience less pain.

The catalyst for the research was a very personal experience. Sunitha Suresh was a college student when her grandmother had major surgery and was put in intensive care with three other patients. This meant her family couldn't always be with her. They decided to put her favorite south Indian classical Carnatic music on an iPod, so she could listen around the clock.

It was very calming, Suresh says. "She knew that someone who loved her had left that music for her and she was in a familiar place."

Suresh could see the music relaxed her grandmother and made her feel less anxious, but she wondered if she also felt less pain. That would make sense, because anxiety can make people more vulnerable to pain. At the time Suresh was majoring in biomedical engineering with a minor in music cognition at Northwestern University where her father, Santhanam Suresh, is a professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics.

So father and daughter decided to collaborate on a study. And since Dr. Suresh works with children, they decided to look at how music chosen by the children themselves might affect their tolerance for pain.

It was a small study, involving 60 patients between 9 and 14 years old. All the patients were undergoing big operations that required them to stay in the hospital for at least a couple of days, things like orthopedic, urologic or neurological surgery. Right after surgery, patients received narcotics to control pain. The next day they were divided into three groups. One group heard 30 minutes of music of their choice, one heard 30 minutes of stories of their choice and one listened to 30 minutes of silence via noise canceling headphones.

Children chose beforehand what they wanted to hear. For the book group, it was stories like James and the Giant Peach. For the music group, there were pop choices including Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber for the younger kids, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys for the older ones.

To measure pain, the researchers used the Faces Pain Scale depicting illustrations such as a smiling, frowning or crying face. The children pointed to which picture best illustrated their level of pain before and after the audio therapy. After a 30-minute session, the children who listened to music or a book reduced their pain burden by 1 point on a 10-point scale compared to the children who listened to silence. That might not sound like much, but Sunitha Suresh says it's the equivalent of taking an over-the-counter pain medication like Advil or Tylenol.

The findings suggest that doctors may be able to use less pain medication for their pediatric patients. And that's a good thing, says Santhanam Suresh, as children don't tolerate such medication as well as adults. Children are smaller and are more likely to suffer side effects such as trouble breathing, nausea, itching and constipation. So the less pain medication, he says, the better.

When it comes to distracting people from pain, music has special qualities, says Dr. Lynn Webster, a pain specialist and past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. "It can generate not only a focus and reduction in anxiety, but it can induce a feeling of euphoria," he says. That can help drown out the pain.

The researchers plan follow-up studies to see if music can decrease the amount of pain medication needed once children get out of the hospital and are back at home, listening to their favorite tunes.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

How young people use music to feel better. A recent study shows listening to your favorite tune can reduce pain even after major surgery. Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: The story starts with a very personal experience. Sunitha Suresh was a college student when her grandmother from southern India had to have major surgery and was then in the intensive care unit.

DR SUNITHA SURESH: She was in a room with three other patients, so my family couldn't be with her all the time, and so my brother actually started playing Carnatic music for her, which is South Indian classical music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUNITHA SURESH: And we would just leave an iPod in her bed while we were away, and we found that it was very calming for her, and she knew that someone who loved her had left that music for her and that she was in a familiar place.

NEIGHMOND: This gave Suresh an idea. She could see that the music had relaxed her grandmother and made her feel less anxious, but she wondered if her grandmother also felt less pain. It would make sense because anxiety can make people more vulnerable to pain. At the time, Suresh was majoring in biomedical engineering with a minor in music cognition at Northwestern University in Chicago where her father was a professor of medicine.

DR SANTHANAM SURESH: Music is always appealing to anybody.

NEIGHMOND: Dr. Santhanam Suresh.

SANTHANAM SURESH: You turn music on, most people whether they are kids or adults can associate with some music or the other.

NEIGHMOND: Suresh and his daughter decided to collaborate on a study. And because Suresh works with children as a pediatric anesthesiologist, they decided to see if music might reduce pain for children. This was a small study, 60 patients between 9 and 14 years old. Sunitha Suresh.

SUNITHA SURESH: All the patients were undergoing big operations that would require them to stay in the hospital for at least a couple of days.

NEIGHMOND: Right after surgery, patients received narcotics to control pain. But the very next day, they were divided into three groups. A control group received pain medication only. The two other groups also got pain medication, but one of them listened to audiobooks and the other to music. Children chose beforehand what they wanted to hear. For the book group, it was stories like "James And The Giant Peach." For the music group...

SUNITHA SURESH: We had a younger pop group which had Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, "Party In The U.S.A.," and then the older pop was Jay-Z, Alicia Keys. We had "Empire State Of Mind."

NEIGHMOND: To measure pain, Suresh used drawings of different facial expressions - a smiling, frowning or crying face. First, the children pointed to the picture that best illustrated their pain level before listening to anything then again after listening to 30 minutes of an audiobook or music.

SUNITHA SURESH: And we found that there was no difference between music and audiobook, but that audio therapy, which is either music or audiobook, reduced the pain burden by one point on a 10-point scale over a 30 minute treatment period in comparison to the silence group.

NEIGHMOND: Now one point may not sound like much but...

SUNITHA SURESH: It's actually comparable to the reduction that you would get from taking a Tylenol or taking an Advil.

NEIGHMOND: Suresh says the findings suggest doctors may be able to use less pain medication for their pediatric patients, and that's a good thing, says her father, Dr. Suresh, because children are more likely to experience side effects like trouble breathing, nausea, itching, and constipation.

SANTHANAM SURESH: Because of their weight and because they are smaller.

NEIGHMOND: So the less pain medication, the better. Dr. Lynn Webster, a pain specialist with the American Academy of Pain Medicine, says when it comes to distracting people from pain, music has special qualities.

DR. LYNN WEBSTER: Because it can be tailored to an individual's liking, and when you have a particular music tone or song or type of music that an individual likes, it can generate not only a focus and a reduction in the anxiety, but it can induce a euphoria.

NEIGHMOND: Researchers plan more studies to see if music therapy can decrease the amount of pain medication needed once children get out of the hospital and are back at home listening to some of their favorite tunes. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.