Music can take the pain away, study finds

A recent study done at Glasgow Caledonian University found that people who were listening to their favourite music felt less pain and could stand pain for a longer period.

Music may be the analgesic of the art world.

A recent study done at Glasgow Caledonian University found that people who were listening to their favourite music felt less pain and could stand pain for a longer period.

Pain researcher Laura Mitchell has measured how people respond to pain with various forms of distractions, including relaxing music, listening to humorous audio tapes, doing math puzzles and looking at art.

As she told CBC's Q cultural affairs show, music is the stimulus that most seems to keep people's minds off the pain.

"Favourite music has come out consistently, even to an extent that's really surprised me in designing these studies, as being extremely effective in how people can tolerate the pain and in actually reducing how much pain they feel," Mitchell said.

But not just any music — it's not the relaxing jazz playing in the dentist's office or the classical piped into the clinic waiting room that does people good, but their own personal favourite.

"I've done this now with about … 400 people and there doesn't seem to be anything in common between the pieces that they bring," Mitchell said.

"I've had Smashing Pumpkins to Kylie Minogue to Destiny's Child right through pop, old-fashioned rock right to techno-dance music that most people would find actually quite painful themselves."

In January, Mitchell published a study in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, showing the significant effects of music on pain.

She used a test that involves asking people to dunk their hand, up to the wrist, in frigid water, and keep it there as long as they can stand it. The test is only done on healthy people and there is an upper limit on the amount of time they keep their hand in the cold bath.

"We were looking to see whether music would have an effect on people's tolerance of pain — to how long they could tolerate some kind of painful stimulus and also whether it would reduce the actual feeling, their actual pain perception for them and whether it would reduce the anxiety of human pain and whether it would help them feel a bit of control over pain they're going through," she said.

People reported their ability to distract themselves from pain more than doubled if they were listening to their favourite music, while their perception of the amount of pain they felt fell significantly.

Mitchell, who's been studying art and pain management for eight years, believes it's the emotional associations of music that lessen human perception of pain.

"It's the distraction of music that you love and you have a relationship with. And you're so emotionally tied to it, you're so emotionally engaged, that it can actually take the pain away," she said.

One of her studies compared the effects of music to the effects of looking at a favourite work of art —test subjects were invited to choose a painting to look at from among 15 of the world's most popular artworks.

The art helped, when compared to looking at a blank wall, but listening to music was far more effective, she said.

Mitchell believes her research will make a difference in many medical situations — for example in dealing with chronic pain or for people facing painful medical tests.

"We want to give clinicians and health care professionals a means to make it more comfortable for patients. To take their minds off the scariness of being in hospital and the noise and people rushing about that can make you feel worse," she said.

Pain management has only recently been given the importance it deserves, Mitchell said.  

"It's something that really, just in the last five years, become really really important," she said. 

"In Europe now about one in five people suffer from chronic pain and they have it on average for seven years and two-thirds of them feel their medication just isn't enough to really give them the relief that they need."