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Music Therapy for Pain Relief

Listening to music is a drug free way to reduce pain at the doctor's office and more. Here is how it works.

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Music does more than lift your mood—it may also be an all-natural pain reliever. Previous studies have found that listening to music helps people workout longer than those who don't listen to tunes. Now another study finds that participants who concentrate on songs while receiving safe electric shocks cut pain levels by 17 percent overall, and it’s twice as effective at slashing pain levels for highly anxious types as compared to their less-anxious counterparts, according to the Journal of Pain.

Don't just zone out to the beat if you're in acute pain: The key to using music to reduce this type of pain is active listening. "Study participants listened to specific melodies that they knew well and identified deviations in the songs, such as a jump in pitch or octave," says lead study author David Bradshaw, Ph.D., of the Pain Research Center at the University of Utah.

So how does concentrating on music work to ease pain exactly? Many of the same brain pathways that process music also process pain. Focusing on music engages your mind and triggers emotional responses to compete with pain pathways so you have less resources leftover to process aches.  "Engaging your mind with music can also help alter your sense of time so you worry less about what's happening in the moment," says Dr. Bradshaw. 

Researchers speculate that actively listening to music might work best for easing acute pain, such as the kind you feel post-surgery, while getting an endoscopy or shot, or when sitting in the dentist's chair.

As far as which type of music is the most powerful acute pain reliever, that’s entirely up to whatever kind moves you most. "The really important thing is that it's music you know well enough to follow and that can maintain your interest over time," says Dr. Bradshaw. "If you listen to rock music all the time in your car, then rock music will probably be the best pain reducer for you because it is most likely to keep you emotionally and cognitively absorbed." So the next time you have to get a cavity drilled, tune into your own soundtrack on your iPod to really help slash your pain levels.

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