How Music Changes Our Perception of Pain
Think of when you recently experienced physical pain: perhaps it was a sudden injury, such as stubbing a toe, cutting a finger, tooth pain, or an earache.
When the body experiences something painful, electrochemical signals travel from the site of the injury to the spinal cord and from there on to the brain. Several brain regions work together to process pain signals which ultimately results in a conscious experience of, ‘Oh, that hurts!’ (or stronger words, if it really hurts!)
As a complete contrast to the experience of pain, brain scans have revealed that listening to pleasing music increases activity in parts of the reward centre of the brain; releasing dopamine, which is a chemical in the brain. It is this ability of music, to make a person feel good, that scientists believe may be a way to help alleviate pain.
Pain Reduced by Pleasing Music
Most people find consonance in music (harmonies, chords) to be pleasing and soothing and dissonance (clashing notes and lack of harmony) to be disturbing and unpleasant.
During scientific research it was found that people in one group who listened to music that was seen as pleasant reported back that they had less pain than another group those who listened to unpleasant, jarring music.
Even more impressively perhaps is the research that suggests that pleasing music can interfere with signals of pain prior to them even reaching the brain itself. Unpleasant music resulted in greater pain being reported than that of pleasant music. These results suggest that the pleasant music blocks the pain signals being transmitted from the spinal cord to the brain at all.
The Distraction Factor
Since music competes for our attention this also probably enhances why it helps relieve pain. In addition the more deeply we are engaged with music, the less pain we feel.
One example was an experiment which asked non-musician subjects to listen out for errors in a musical excerpt. These all reported feeling less pain while receiving minor electric shocks than those subjects who had not been set the task and who only had to sit and passively listen to the music.
It has also been suggested that people who are naturally more anxious or with a tendency to become easily and greatly absorbed by an activity may well lead to such individuals experiencing even greater pain relief from engaged, dynamic music listening.
All these findings point towards using music within pain relief therapies.
At the Chronic Pain Care Center at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, music therapy is part of the array of techniques that patients learn to help control their pain.
The initial reason I was drawn to this area of the use of music for pain relief was due to something I experienced myself a few years ago.
I had slipped a disc in my lower back and was in an indescribable amount of pain. Somehow I stumbled unwittingly upon the discovery that if I played music that was pleasant, loudly from my trusty iPod into my ears that the perception of pain decreased. I truly felt less pain than just before. I assumed that it as distracting my mind from the pain and it would seem that my thoughts were correct. My pain certainly became far more manageable.