Dec. 27, 2011 -- Losing yourself in music really may help take the sting out of a root canal or other painful medical procedure -- especially if you are feeling anxious about it.
In a new study, 143 people listened to music while they received a painful shock in their fingertip. Participants were asked to follow the melodies, and identify unusual tones in an effort to take their mind off the pain.
It seemed to do the trick. Participants’ pain decreased as they became more and more absorbed in the tunes. Those who were the most anxious reaped the most pain-relieving benefits when they became engaged in the music.
“Our results suggest that engaging activities like music listening may be most effective for reducing pain in high-anxiety persons who can easily become absorbed in activities,” conclude researchers led by David H. Bradshaw, PhD, from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
The study did not look at different types of music and whether soothing music worked best. Bradshaw says the type of music isn’t as important as how well it holds the patient’s interest.
The findings appear in The Journal of Pain.
The researchers measured the participants' responses to pain via electrical activity in the brain, dilation of their pupils, and other methods. These are considered more objective than self-reports about pain.
Music and Mind Over Matter
Doctors have understood the power of music for years, commonly using it as a way to distract worried patients.
Roger Fillingim, PhD, says the study shows it may be more effective in people who are overly anxious.
“The concern was that whatever we were doing to help pain will be thwarted by anxiety, but this study suggests that certain types of distraction can actually make anxiety and pain better,” says Fillingim, a professor in the College of Dentistry at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Raffi Tachdjian, MD, MPH, has watched music take children away from their pain through his work at the Children’s Music Fund, a nonprofit group that provides musical instruments and music therapy to kids, teens, and young adults with chronic conditions and life-altering illnesses. He is also an assistant clinical professor of medicine and pediatrics at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.
“Music helps show [kids] they can get through it,” Tachdjian says. Besides just a simple distraction, music may also have acupuncture-like effects at interrupting pain pathways, he says. “Let’s say floor one is your finger, and your brain is the penthouse,” he says. “Music helps block the elevator.” This way the pain signal can’t travel to the brain and cause you to feel and say “ouch.”
For those of us who want a little extra help at that next dentist visit, Bradshaw offers this suggestion: “Listening to music with headphones or playing a video game with sound effects that you can listen to with headphones are effective, as the sounds can mask the sound of the dental instruments,” he says.