Most of us love music because it brings enjoyment to our lives. But music also has the unique ability to affect our bodies in ways that normally seem beyond our control. It has a positive effect on our heart rate, blood pressure and the release of naturally occurring painkilling chemicals in our brains. For these reasons, it can play an important role for patients with palliative care treatment plans, which aim to reduce pain and other symptoms but don’t address the underlying cause. Research shows that listening to music can help patients relax, increases their feelings of wellbeing and reduces pain and fatigue.
“When a patient is dealing with a chronic or terminal illness, pain relief and emotional support are critical to their quality of life,” said Geisinger Community Medical Center critical care physician Laurie Anne Loiacono, MD, who also serves as program director of Geisinger’s ICU Medicine Experience Enhancement Team. “In palliative care settings, music therapy can provide significant stress relief and physical comfort to patients and their families.”
How does music therapy work?
Since music affects everyone in different ways, a one-size-fits-all approach is not effective in music therapy. The music therapist will first meet with the patient to learn about their illness, favorite types of music, cultural background and spiritual beliefs. This helps the therapist tailor a treatment plan based on the patient’s individual needs and preferences.
Music therapy typically focuses on physical, emotional and spiritual goals. It can be used to:
- Reduce the symptoms of pain, agitation, and shortness of breath.
- Help patients feel happier and less anxious, confused, or lonely.
- Support their religious beliefs.
- Help families reconnect and interact more meaningfully with the patient.
“Some patients may benefit from active participation in music therapy,” said Dr. Loiacono. “This includes songwriting, singing, playing an instrument, selecting music and dancing or moving to music.”
Other patients benefit from music therapy that is focused on relaxation and guided imagery, designed to help alleviate pain and stress. For patients who are close to dying, music therapy reduces anxiety and can provide a peaceful transition.
Music therapy and pain relief
Pain is a complex mixture of physical and emotional symptoms. While researchers don’t know exactly how music affects pain in patients receiving palliative care, it likely works in the same way that your favorite song elevates your mood.
“Music therapy may trigger the release of biochemicals called ‘endorphins’ in the brain, that act as the body’s natural painkillers,” said Dr. Loiacono. “We think this is why patients receiving music therapy sometimes experience a reduction in pain and require less pain medication.”
When patients are actively involved in creating or listening to music, they are not thinking about their pain. Music therapy provides a much-needed distraction for palliative care patients, alleviating some of their pain by reducing the amount of time they have to focus on it.
However, music therapy is not only about reducing perceived pain. It creates specific and measurable improvements on physical symptoms, helps to lower blood pressure and regulates heart rate.
“When people think about palliative care, they often associate it with the final few days before death,” said Dr. Loiacono. “However, it’s more than that. It’s about helping patients live better and more meaningful lives with their illness, and music therapy can be an important part of our approach.”