Turning on a feel-good track is the cheapest and fastest therapy I can think of. I’m not a singer or songwriter, but I love music. And I use it for my own chronic pain management all the time.
Did you know that people listen to music for up to 126 different reasons? It’s so much more than a pick-me-up. Music has the proven power to shift our way of thinking and our physiological responses.
Research is now showing that it can also reduce our perception of pain. Music can be used as a non-pharmaceutical treatment for chronic pain… and actually, work!
To give you an idea of how music has the ability to affect us – in good and bad ways – I want you to try these three things:
- The next time you walk into a clothing store – listen out for the happy tunes playing in the background and think about how it motivates you.
Stores play that music because research has shown that people spend more time and money in retail stores when certain music is playing.
- If you watch a horror or thriller anytime soon – mute the sound and see whether or not you’re still as jittery. Without the music creating suspense… is it still as scary? Probably not!
- When you’re on Spotify next, turn on your favourite Disney songs from childhood and see how well you can sing along to it.
I will bet money on the fact that you remember some (or most) of the lyrics that you learnt as a kid.
Now think about it. I’ve just shown you how music can influence your decisions, emotions and memory.
Now try to tell me that chronic pain doesn’t have the ability to affect those exact same three things?
Music has shown to actually counteract the negative effects of chronic pain and it doesn’t stop with the three things I’ve just mentioned – there is so much more.
What is Music Therapy?
Music therapy is more than just listening to good music and relaxing. It’s founded on the principle that almost all people respond to rhythm, melody and harmony.
It can be used as a non-pharmacological treatment for chronic pain management as it helps you relax, lifts your spirits and gives you a sense of control. If it’s successful, it can lower your perception of pain.
What you do in session really depends on your physical and psychological needs. Just like seeing a therapist, your sessions are personalised and private.
But you can expect your music therapist to teach you how to really listen to and understand the effects of that music. Not just on your emotions, on your whole being.
Things you could expect from a session include rhythmic-based activities, songwriting, singing, playing instruments, improvisation and, of course, listening to music.
But official music therapy isn’t the only way to benefit from melodies.
Music therapy vs. music as therapy
There’s quite a difference between music therapy and using music as therapy, and this needs to be clear.
Being a music therapist is an alternative discipline that requires a lot of training. And as professionals, their job is to help treat every aspect of your pain experience through the use of music.
But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t many alternative therapeutic ways that music can still be used.
I haven’t worked with a music therapist personally, but I’ve definitely benefited from using music in other therapeutic ways.
I think one of the best collections of experiences I’ve had was during hydrotherapy.
I’ve always loved hydro because it helps with movement and circulation. Plus there’s a lot of floating and swirling involved which soothes my chronic pain a lot.
One day my therapist made an adjustment to the swimming pool that had me giddy with excitement… She installed underwater speakers.
This meant that whenever I was floating on my back, slightly submerged underwater, I was surrounded by dolphin chirps and whale calls.
I’ve actually always loved being in the water. But at the time I couldn’t dream of swimming in the ocean – I was so weak.
So this little musical feature did more than add to the ambience of the session. I was connected with it on every level and it made me burst with happiness. I felt like my wishes were coming true.
All I had to do was close my eyes and I was transported to my happy place.
How Does Music Therapy Help People with Chronic Pain?
Surgeons are known for playing music while they’re operating in theatre to help them relax – now it’s proven to be calming for the patients too.
People with green fingers will swear by the fact that their plants grow better when classical music is playing. (This is also proving to be true.)
And when it comes to anyone with chronic pain – music as therapy can actually lower the perceived levels of pain you’re feeling at that time.
Helps you relax
It’s no secret that chronic pain can leave you feeling like a ball of nerves the whole time. When your pain levels are higher, you’re getting less sleep and you feel disempowered or alone, etc… all these things create overwhelm and anxiety.
Ironically, one of the key things that can trigger heightened pain levels is high levels of stress.
Now if your pain is at a relatively manageable place with medical intervention, something like music therapy can really help you with stress management.
This is because the musical stimulus helps you develop rhythmic breathing and the rhythmic structure needed for a methodical release of body tension.
When your body is nice and relaxed, you get the chance to replace stress with happy visual images that come from the familiar, calming music.
Getting this conditioning process right takes time and lots of practice. But when you get it right – it’ll become a subconscious effort to associate good music with stress relief.
One of my favourite chillout songs at the moment: 'Issues', Julia Michaels
Boosts your mood
Another issue you need to deal with if you have chronic pain is mental health. Things like depression are common because of how pain affects your brain’s functionality.
But just like stress, there’s a snowball effect here too. Chronic pain can trigger depression… and depression can also magnify pain.
So, again, it’s really important to treat depression through pharmaceuticals or interventions like psychotherapy. Once that is in place, you can integrate music therapy into your treatment plan to enhance your mood in a natural way.
One of the reasons this works is because when you enjoy music, it activates the same ‘pleasure centre’ in your brain that things like food, drugs and sex will activate.
Music naturally targets the dopamine system.
People are still not sure exactly how music actually has lasting effects on your happiness and health.
But one of the main arguments being made is that it has the ability to regenerate and develop your brain’s neural pathways and your neuroplasticity.
One of my favourite mood-boosting songs at the moment: 'Some Nights', Fun
Integrates into Your Pain Management Programme
Did you know that studies have been done on patients and how much morphine they need two hours post-surgery? And they found that patients who had been listening to music needed consistently less morphine than the patients who didn’t?
We now know that music therapy can act as an analgesic enhancer and reduce your perception of pain.
So once you feel comfortable with your use of pharmaceuticals and other medical interventions, finding a less invasive form of support becomes necessary for your long-term pain management solution.
Just like exercise or mindfulness, music therapy is a good option because it’s safe, relatively affordable, non-invasive, sustainable and has no real side effects.
The really beneficial part of conditioning your brain through music therapy is that the effects are long-lasting.
So chances are you only need to do it for a certain amount of time before the skills you learn become healthy habits.
One of my favourite daily listens at the moment: 'Save Tonight', Eagle-Eyed Cherry
Allows you to be physically active
Because of its positive effects on things like stress management and mental health, music therapy can also enhance your physiological health in other ways.
Basically, it can relax your body enough to boost your physical performance. For example, music therapy can indirectly help:
- Improve blood pressure;
- Strengthen heart health;
- Relieve muscle tension; and
- Stimulate motor coordination skills.
What this means is that you have a safe and comfortable space to use your body in ways that your chronic pain may not often allow. Especially if you’re also struggling with mental health.
Any basic physical movement will help your body build a bit of strength if you’re in too much pain to be active right now. Any movement will help you loosen your muscles, stimulate circulation and lubricate your joints.
One of my favourite songs that gets me pumped up for a workout: 'Be Right There', Diplo & Sleepy Tom
Boosts your quality of life
Chronic pain affects more than your body and mind – it affects your lifestyle too. Music – as therapy in general – can counteract and even help you improve some aspects of your life. Here’s how:
- Gives you an opportunity to be more introspective and do some self-exploration in a constructive way. This is an especially useful coping technique when you feel isolated or alone.
- When you find music that you can relate to and connect with, it gives you the opportunity to listen to someone else’s words of solace.
This is always a great way to encourage you to build a better understanding of what you’re feeling.
- Provides you with a safe environment for self-expression. This is often something that you may feel a bit discouraged to do at times when you feel misunderstood because of your illness.
- Gives you the opportunity to connect with others who are going through a similar experience to you and potentially find comfort in the same kinds of music as you do.
Whether it’s on social media or fan groups – it doesn’t matter. The point is it can improve your quality of life by breaking habits of self-isolation.
- Combines emotional, intellectual and physical stimulation, which is hard to get right when you have chronic pain.
Do you ever feel like it’s impossible to activate and use all your stimuli when you’re in severe pain? I know I do!
Take basic conversation for example – things can easily get overwhelming or go over my head when I’m sore. Something that would never happen in the past.
But music just has the ability to activate you in such a natural way. It gets your brain thinking, your body wanting to move and your heart full of happiness.
How To Use Music as Therapy for Pain Management
When you do official music therapy, your therapist will ask you a whole bunch of questions to get a better idea of your physical, psychological and social needs. This gives them an idea of what kind of treatment course is best suited for you.
But if you want to dip your toes in the water first and try to alleviate some pain by giving music as therapy a go from home – here are a few things you can try to really benefit from it.
I’m not going to lie, they’re pretty simple activities but they really do help when you do them properly.
Do a singalong
If you use a hairbrush as a mic or just love to reach every single note when singing Bohemian Rhapsody – this is for you.
The activity is all about participation and involvement in a song. (So Bohemian Rhapsody is actually a really good choice.) The idea is to learn as much of a song as possible by heart.
This includes getting your breath work right, moving around a little and preferably using a fake mic too. You don’t have to perform it for anyone – this is just for you.
One of the last challenges I gave myself was to learn The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air soundtrack… Now that was quite the experience for anyone passing me on the street.
Try black-out songwriting
The objective of this activity is to:
- Take a song that resonates with you – which in your case, it could be something like recovery, illness or even learning to live.
- Black-out the lyrics you either don’t like in the song or lyrics that you could replace with something better.
- And effectively, create a version of this song that is personal and resonates with you.
If you’re stuck on a song, here is a set of three songs already set up for you to use.
Sit and listen
Finally, I’m going to mention the most obvious point – but not the most straightforward. I know you’ve listened to music before and enjoyed it. However, I’m asking you to get a little deeper into it.
Music that you like has such a profound effect on you and it’s worth harnessing this power.
Start by playing with the effects that music has on your emotional state.
One of the best ways to do this is by making two playlists: one with songs that enhance your emotional state and one with songs that change your emotional state.
Now take 10 minutes to think about why your emotions were either heightened or changed by these songs. Listen to the differences in lyrics, rhythm and tempo carefully.
Now use all this information to figure out what this could tell you about your own emotional health?
Be mindful of sound.
This isn’t just about music – it’s about sound in general. Whether it’s cars driving down the street, chit-chat from across the hall, the crunching sound of someone biting into a cookie – noise is everywhere.
Being mindful of sound is a powerful thing to acknowledge and take in because once you get it right, you have the power to manage it.
If background noise irritates you, take road works for example, then it would be a good idea to understand why. The workers are just doing what they’re meant to do.
So, can you accept it and refocus your energy on yourself? Can you take in sound and shift your emotions regardless of it? And when an environment is too harsh – can you leave?
My Personal Top 10 Feel-Good Tracks
Now that I’ve shared a whole bunch of information on music – I thought I’d share some actual music too!
Sometimes a little musical inspiration is all you need to create your own chronic pain management playlist.
Here are 10 of my current feel-good songs (old and new) that I’ve got playing right now: