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Medical Mysteries of Music

Can music reduce pain? Science says “yes”

Maybe you’ve experimented with distracting yourself from pain by listening music. It’s certainly worked with me during workouts and irrational bouts of jogging. I pay for it later, of course, but in the moment, music seems to keep the pain at bay.

The results of a new study on using sound for pain relief have just been released. Researchers used state-of-the-art brain imaging have figured out how the brain’s neural mechanisms use sound to reduce sensitivity to pain.

Such research goes back to at least 1960 when a dentist published the story of how he used sound to reduce pain relief when it came to pulling out teeth. His study looked at more than 200 tooth extractions using–get this–just sound as the only painkiller. He called this “audio analgesia.”

Since then, other dentists and doctors have reported similar findings. It works, but no one knew why or how until now.

This new study looked at playing music for mice and their tolerance for pain. Not a volume is necessary; music played just slightly above ambient background noise will work. And the mice seemed to be okay with any kind of music: classical, punk, dissonant. Even plain white noise worked. And the effects lasted for up to two days.

We now know that the painkiller effect results from the neocortex, thalamus, and brainstem all competing to process either music or pain. The trick is to find exactly the right type of music played at exactly the right volume. Researchers think that this leads to new non-drug pain suppression. Take that, Purdue Pharma.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38162 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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