Scientific study finds music can ‘tune out pain’

A study has found that listening to a specially composed music track can achieve “clinically significant” reductions in pain intensity and unpleasantness, according to the researchers behind the work.

The All of Us track – composed by musician Anatole with the help of psychologist Dr Claire Howlin of University College Dublin and available via Spotify – reportedly showed a benefit in 286 people suffering from various types of acute pain, including headache, backache or period pain in the online experiment.

At the moment only the top-line findings are available, as the study will be submitted to an academic journal for publication.

The rationale behind the development of the track is to make music that is engaging, interesting and enjoyable so people do not focus on their pain, according to a statement from Nurofen (ibuprofen), Reckitt Benckiser’s painkiller brand, which supported the research.

By applying instrumental and orchestral sounds, such as strings, pianos, bells, and minor vocal samples, the aim was to elicit “a sense of wonder, empowerment and inspire mental strength” that can help people dissociate from their pain.

“Music has the ability to give people a big burst of dopamine in their neural reward network,” commented Dr Howlin.

“This track reduced both pain intensity and unpleasantness and to achieve an effect of this size for a completely unfamiliar track, really underscores the potential of creating specific pieces of music for pain management,” she added.

Nurofen also cites a survey of 2,000 people which showed that while only 15% of people identified music as a way to help them better tolerate acute pain, 80% said they would if music was proven to help.

More than two-thirds (69%) of respondents said they were interested in more holistic pain-relieving methods to use alongside over-the-counter medication, while 71% agreed that music has a positive impact on their general wellbeing and 74% said it could make them feel different emotions.

There is growing interest in the use of “medical music” to help manage a range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, insomnia and epilepsy, building on research suggesting it can affect physiological factors like secretion, hormone levels, and neurotransmission.

Last year, for example, US company HealthTunes launched a free music therapy app designed to help frontline healthcare workers relieve stress and anxiety.

Image by whoalice-moore from Pixabay

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