Can music block pain signals? Music-induced analgesia

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I, personally, have known for a long time that music could help reduce my pain levels.  It’s just something that I always knew intuitively. Listen to music (good music, of course) –> feel better.

That’s why I was so intrigued when I found the following post from my friend Jo Malby on some of the science behind how music can lessen our experience of pain.  (I’m sharing it here with her permission, of course!).

Jo writes:

“The joy we derive from listening to music we love, much like anything that brings us joy, is always beneficial in helping us cope with chronic illness and pain. According to ongoing studies, researchers have found that there are many reasons for pain patients to listen to music they love.

Outside of the times when pain is too fierce or your body too sensitized and flared-up for sound or vibration, music can be a useful coping tool, though not only for the joy and escape music brings you.

With real physiological changes in the brain, listening to your favourite music can have a significant, positive impact on perception of chronic pain, as well as the pain itself, with some studies even finding music resulted in less intense pain levels.

Music also reduces anxiety and depression, both often natural consequences of unpredictable debilitating chronic illness and pain, and both difficult to manage and treat. Though it’s often under used as an natural anti-depressant.

Research has drawn its theories on how nerve impulses in the central nervous system are affected by music. Anything that distracts us from pain may reduce the extent to which we focus on it; music helps us shift our attention from the pain but it’s also emotionally engaging, especially if the piece has memories or associations.

With even the rarest of tunes now online — from YouTube to Spotify to Soundcloud to more exclusive sites — search for some of your favourite sounds or create playlists with songs that specifically help you through particularly difficult times or when pain is especially severe, and you need to calm it and your state of mind.

Personally, nothing gives my mood a lift like a little Billy Holiday, Dusty Springfield or Aretha; if feeling frustrated, Chavela Vegas (anger’s better in Spanish). More recently, Mozart’s been on repeat. I love music. (Almost) every genre. Find what you love. Play it. See if it helps you cope, lifts your mood, or offers a momentary sonic escape from the complexities that come with pain and chronic illness.

Scientists now know that listening to music involves a huge portion of the brain — auditory areas, of course, but also motor (movement) areas, the limbic system (involved in emotions), and areas of the brain believed to be responsible for increased creative thought.

Anything that lights up areas in the brain other than pain may also be helpful to reduce that pain.  ((Sidenote from Christy: this reminds me of some of the really cool resources I’ve linked to from Neil Pearson!)).

These effects may not be powerful enough in isolation but added to your pain management toolkit, using music when you are feeling frustrated or sad, depressed or angry, lost or alone, all can help you cope, feel better emotionally, and even lessen a tiny bit of pain.

A study conducted by Peter Vuust, of the Center for Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN) at Aarhus University, Denmark, found that fibromyalgia patients experienced less chronic pain after listening to their favourite music.

Additionally, recent studies on music therapy and chronic pain conditions found that music reduces anxiety, depression and pain— just from listening to music.

The effect is often referred to as ‘music-induced analgesia‘, and though that analgesia may be more subtle than profound, anything that helps you must be embraced.”

Some additional links:

The Conversation: How music can relieve chronic pain

BBC News: How music can reduce chronic pain

Prevention.com: More music, less pain?

Body in Mind: Music modulation of pain perception

And for more from Jo:

Jo Malby is an amazing writer living with and sharing her experience of complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) on her site The Princess in the Tower.

She also runs the site Inspire Portal, where she shares resources to provide creative inspiration to writers (and other artists!).

Definitely check out more of what she has to say!

Violins and enhanced sensory maps

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I recently learned about a fascinating study that I had to share with you all.  Researchers took two groups of people– professional violinists and regular, everyday people off the street– and pricked everyone’s index finger with a pin.  The violinists reported feeling much more pain than the non-violinists, even though everyone’s finger was pricked in the exact same way.

I thought this was so interesting.  This article on Optimum Sports Performance sums it up quite well (scroll down to the “Influence Psychology” section.  The author writes, “The enhanced sensory map and awareness of their hands that a professional violinist has makes them hypervigilant to anything that may be remotely threatening.”

I love this phrase “enhanced sensory map.”  They say practice makes perfect– well, all those hours and hours of practicing has given that violinist a very well-developed communication pathway between hand, spinal cord, and brain.  He or she is simply better at sensing what is going on in his or her hands.  Most of the time, that’s a good thing– it’s where the artistry comes from– but it’s not good when something is going wrong in that part of the body.

We are conditioned to think that “better” means tougher.  Practice is supposed to make us “stronger.”  We revere athletes for their ability to keep going despite pain.  We think only beginners and those who are not strong would let pain stop them.

In reality, it’s the “best” violinists who have the most awareness of their hands.  The more time a violinist has spent practicing, the better a musician he or she probably is- and the more sensitive he or she is going to be to an injury to the fingers.

I think that’s the reason I loved this study so much.  I’m so tired of the notion that pain somehow means you are weak, or a novice.  In the case of this study, it’s the seasoned individuals who have truly mastered a discipline who are the most likely to react strongly to the pain.

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This ability of our nervous systems to become better at the things we practice allows us to develop talent and mastery.  It also, unfortunately, allows us the ability to develop chronic pain.

When you go through a prolonged, painful physical event, it’s as if you’re giving your nervous system the chance to “practice” sending and receiving pain signals.  It responds by getting “better” at feeling pain.  This is what causes chronic pain– you end up feeling pain more easily, and have a lower pain threshold, than you did before.

I would like people to stop thinking of chronic pain as something that happens to those who are “lesser,” or as something that is outside of the realm of normal human experience.  Chronic pain is simply the other side of the coin that talent and mastery are on.

violin on side cropped

**I really hate the fact that I couldn’t provide an official citation for this study, but no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find one.  I believe the study was headed by David Butler and Lorimer Moseley, but I don’t know the year, or which institution they were affiliated with at the time.  They reference it in their book Explain Pain, as well as in various interviews I’ve watched online.  Sorry… I hate when people don’t cite things.  If you know anything more about where to find this study, please don’t hesitate to let me know!