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Rebecca Barnard

2016-08-04 07:00

The Joy of Music: music therapy as an effective alleviator of chronic pain

For individuals suffering from chronic and long term pain, finding effective pain management strategies is vital, but can also prove incredibly challenging. As well as the physical manifestation, chronic and long term pain can also have psychological, emotional and spiritual components that need to be acknowledged. The focus, then, becomes finding strategies that help to alleviate or address all of these issues.

I became interested in exploring effective pain management strategies due to my own experience of long term pain due to a genetic condition called Marfan Syndrome. I'm also a music therapist, and during my training at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh I spent some time investigating the possibility of using music therapy as a means of helping people suffering from chronic and long term pain.

Music therapy is the use of music to provide support, and facilitate development, for people with a wide range of needs. Sessions are designed to meet the very specific needs and goals of the individuals being worked with, and can involve music listening and discussion, improvising on instruments, singing, playing pre-composed music, song-writing, and a range of other musical activities. Although playing and creating music can constitute a large part of the therapeutic process, you don't need to have a 'musical' background, or the ability to play an instrument prior to beginning therapy. The instruments and equipment used are specifically chosen to be accessible and, more importantly, satisfying to use or play, and you might be surprised at the way an individual's innate musicality will emerge within a session, despite any anxiety they may experience when being asked to play an instrument for the first time. Everybody understands music on some level, and whatever a person's needs, abilities, or skills, anyone can respond to and interact with music in some way – be it tapping your foot, clapping along, recognising or anticipating musical repetition or change, or simply having emotions or memories evoked by the music we listen to.

Giving people suffering from chronic and long term pain access to music therapy could prove beneficial in a number of ways. Listening to music can provide an alternative stimulus to draw attention away from pain, and discussing the experience with a therapist could help a person to explore and process any emotions the music or lyrics bring up. Song-writing can also offer individuals a way of externalising their experiences in a creative and engaging way. Playing improvised or pre-composed music helps to develop motor skills, promotes general health and wellbeing, and allows individuals the opportunity to creatively explore and express emotions in an interactive, highly intimate, and engaging way that can bypass the need for language. Our pre-verbal responses to, and understanding of, musicality are an attribute of music therapy than can prove extremely valuable – particularly when considering the powerful, deep-seated and sometimes indescribable nature of pain. Singing also provides a great deal of benefit, both physically and emotionally. Not only does singing increase oxygenation of the blood stream and exercise major muscle groups in the upper body, even when sitting, singing also causes the body to release endorphins and oxytocin, associated with feelings of pleasure as well as alleviating feelings of anxiety and stress. There is also increasing evidence supporting the use of vibroacoustic therapy to treat chronic pain. In this form of music therapy, a client sits or reclines in a specially designed bed/chair, embedded with a speaker system. Specifically selected or composed music that utilises a range of timbres and frequencies is then played to not only physically stimulate the body, but psychologically engage the client in the listening aspect of the session. Treatments have been found to reduce pain and cause deep relaxation by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and metabolic rates.

Through music therapy, those suffering with chronic and long term pain could be given new opportunities to creatively explore and externalise their experiences in an engaging, intimate, and accessible way. Chronic and long term pain should not be seen as only a physical issue. It can bring up feelings of anxiety, fear, isolation, anger, and limit a person's independence and autonomy. Music therapy offers individuals a space in which to express these emotions, helping to alleviate the emotional and psychological aspects of chronic and long term pain, and make the physical aspects of pain easier to live with.

For more information on music therapy and how you can find a music therapist in your area, visit the British Association for Music Therapy website, or Nordoff Robbins or Nordoff Robbins Scotland. To find a community choir in your area, get in touch with Big Big Sing.