Post-op Pain: Music as Powerful as a Pill

If you are having elective surgery, bring along your favorite tunes. New study shows listening to music after surgery can be as effective as medications for reducing pain and anxiety.

Interview with Elizabeth Ball, MD

Whether you like Taylor Swift or James Taylor, Minaj or Mozart, listening to music can improve recovery from surgery, according a British study published in The Lancet this month.

“Music is non-invasive, cheap, safe, accessible, and beyond a doubt it works,” says study co-author Elizabeth Ball, MD, an OB-GYN at Bart’s Health NHS Trust and an honorary senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. “If I were going into a hospital tomorrow, I would definitely bring my own music.”

In an analysis of over 4,000 randomized controlled trials comparing music’s effects to that of other non-drug interventions—including routine care, headphones with no music, white noise, and undisturbed bed rest, music proved to have multiple healing powers:

  • It lowered pre- and post-operative pain
  • Reduced use of painkillers
  • Boosted patient satisfaction
  • Alleviated anxiety

“On a 0-to-10 scale of no pain to most pain, music listeners came in at 2 centimeters,” she explains. “If it were a drug with that success rate, it would get significant marketing.”

There are many perks to music as a pain relief aid, chiefly its lack of side effects. Unlike morphine, which provides excellent pain relief but at a cost—nausea, constipation, respiratory depression—music provides pain relief without any side effects, notes Dr. Ball.

The studies that Dr. Ball’s team analyzed used a variety of analgesics from morphine to acetaminophen, so it was impossible to quantify the relative effects of the drugs compared to music. But even the most soothing tunes could never replace pain medication after surgery. “I wouldn’t want readers to think that they couldn’t get Demerol—only music,” Dr. Ball says. “It’s an adjunct therapy.”

While the analysis showed a “clinically meaningful” reduction in pain with music, it couldn’t explain the mechanism behind it. Dr. Ball speculates that music affects the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary movements like our breathing and heartbeat.

This system has two sides: It can send us into fight or flight mode—with a fast heartbeat, sweating, shaking and muscle tension—or elicit the opposite effect, known as the relaxation response.“When I use music with my patients, I see their bodies relax—their breathing slows down, their shaking stops,” she says.

This analysis looked only at pain related to surgery, but other research shows that music also lowers the intensity of acute, chronic and cancer-specific pain, and significantly eases anxiety related to cancer treatment. Quelling anxiety itself helps with pain, as simply feeling anxious exacerbates the perception of pain. “I could see how music would work really well at the dentist’s office,” Dr. Ball says.

Fortunately, all types of soothing music used in the studies—from easy listening to rock to classical Turkish—helped to control pain and anxiety fairly equally. One category that stood out above the rest? Patients’ choice. “Listening to your own choice of music is like bringing a little bit from home—kind of a private feeling in a cold hospital world,” Dr. Ball says. “It also gives patients some control in an environment where other people are controlling just about everything else.”

If you’re heading into the operating room anytime soon or if you’re just struggling with pain or anxiety, Dr. Ball suggests cranking up some soothing tunes. Her personal preference is ancient Indian chants, but feel free to listen to gospel, religious readings, light jazz or white noise—whatever makes you feel relaxed. 

Updated on: 08/17/15
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