Music therapists help patients find comfort and relief from pain

Music therapy

March 1 is World Music Therapy Day, a time to raise awareness about the healing power of music.

We spoke with Cheryl H. Benze, MME, MT-BC, NICU-MT, the Creative Arts Therapies Clinical Coordinator in UK HealthCare Integrative Medicine & Health, about music therapy and how it can help with managing pain.

Music therapy can be an effective option for managing pain without medication. Pain management is a vital part of what medical music therapists do, but it is only one aspect.

An experienced clinician, Benze has provided music therapy to a variety of patients, from those needing early intervention to those supported through hospice care. 

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is a clinical discipline that uses evidence-based music interventions within a therapeutic relationship to address patient goals.

Board-certified music therapists (MT-BC) provide support to patients in psychological/emotional, physical, cognitive, spiritual and/or social domains. Because music therapy is a powerful and non-invasive way to support patients, unique outcomes are possible when it is used to reduce pain, anxiety and/or depression.  Research results and clinical experiences have proven its effectiveness. 

Where do music therapists work? Who can benefit from the practice?

Music therapists work in a large variety of areas, including medical hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, day treatment centers, substance abuse programs, community mental health centers, public schools, special education, rehab centers, nursing homes, senior centers, hospice programs, prisons, wellness centers and in private practice. Clients are referred by primary care physicians, psychologists, teachers, social workers and other care providers. Many patients also self-refer. 

People who may benefit from music therapy are children, adolescents, adults and the elderly with mental health needs, developmental and learning disabilities, Alzheimer's disease and other aging-related conditions, substance abuse problems, brain injuries, physical disabilities and acute and chronic pain.

At UK HealthCare, music therapy is available throughout Chandler Hospital and Kentucky Children’s Hospital with a physician/provider order, similar to physical therapy and occupational therapy. 

We may provide treatment for patients of all ages, from birth to end of life. Infants in the NICU receive specialized protocols for developmental needs. Cancer patients participate in music therapy to manage anxiety and cope with illness and treatment. Music therapy provides comfort and respite for end-of-life patients and their families. 

Providers order music therapy for pain management, stress and anxiety, to Improve mood and enhance coping skills for improved clinical outcomes, to Increase relaxation, for rehab goals, and for self-expression. We can also provide support for families and caregivers who share the difficulty of hospitalization. No musical background or experience is necessary for music therapy to be effective.

How does music therapy benefit patients?

Music therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment for people of all ages and conditions. Research suggests that music can reduce anxiety, decrease the perception of pain and improve quality of life. It can provide motivation for movement and participation in treatment. Music therapy can help patients with confusion, delirium and/or memory problems by accessing all areas of the brain. Music alone is the therapy in many instances, such as a hymn providing spiritual comfort, favorite songs as distraction from pain or to calm agitation. 

Music is also used in other ways within therapy — such as connecting through song lyrics, reminiscing about memories elicited by songs, or playing an instrument to enhance physical rehabilitation. 

What happens in a typical music therapy session?

Because music therapy treatment and music preferences are so individualized, it is difficult to describe a “typical” session. However, at UK HealthCare, we primarily use live music (we play guitar and sing) to offer patients their preferred music genre. Research shows that people respond more favorably when they can choose rather than when music is chosen for them. This also means that some people may relax to Metallica songs and others to Enya songs.

Physical pain and emotional suffering are also individualized, and music therapy can improve pain management by directing attention away from the pain, supporting breathing and relaxation (to reduce the perception of pain) and improving sleep. 

In addition to live music, music therapists and patients may write songs, analyze lyrics, play instruments or sing. It depends on what the patient needs. A session can be 20 minutes, or it may be 50.

Can you give examples of how music therapy has helped people?

Let me give an example of a session where the patient was in excruciating pain, drawing up and clinging to their knees. They gave 10-plus as a pain score. After determining preferences, the music therapist played music that rhythmically matched the patient’s movements and engaged the patient’s attention. As the music proceeded, the patient listened more intently to the lyrics, singing along softly. The music therapist would change lyrics to see if the patient would listen and catch changes. The therapist facilitated the patient’s choice of music, but gradually slowed the tempo and rhythm to encourage relaxation. The patient lay back in the bed and closed their eyes and were shortly asleep, breathing regularly and calmly. In later sessions, the music therapist instructed the patient on music-assisted relaxation techniques so the patient could utilize them when needed, giving control and reducing the need for medication.

Music therapists frequently assist with needle sticks, IV insertions and other painful procedures for adults and children. 

Is there anything else you'd like for us to know about music therapy?

There are three things: 

  • First: Music therapy is not entertainment. While music therapy may be enjoyable, the music is chosen and applied for specific reasons after assessment of the patient’s needs, preferences and circumstances. Entertainment is not goal-directed, not person-specific, and doesn’t necessarily engage the recipient. Music therapy does all that and more.
  • Second: While listening to music is usually pleasant, application of the wrong music can be harmful with someone who does not know how to help recipients process. Music preference is extremely personal, and music may elicit memories and associations that are upsetting. Music therapists assess this prior to providing treatment but, as trained therapists, they can help patients identify, work through, cope with and/or resolve strong emotions and reactions.
  • Third: Everyone can benefit from music therapy in some way. You do not have to have musical training, musical ability or a musical background to benefit. You don’t really even have to enjoy music, but it does help! 

Learn more about Music Therapy at UK HealthCare

This content was produced by UK HealthCare Brand Strategy.

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