Researchers from the University of Utah Pain Research Center evaluated the potential benefits of music for diverting psychological responses to experimental pain stimuli. They hypothesized that music may divert cognitive focus from pain. If true, the key to successful pain control from this method would be the degree of engagement by the patient in the diversion task.
Distraction has is a well known pain reliever. This new study published in The Journal of Pain determined that listening to music in high-anxiety persons who are easily absorbed in cognitive activities can be effective for reducing pain.
One hundred forty-three people participated in the study. They were instructed to listen to music tracks, follow the melodies, and identify unusual tones. During the music tasks, they were given safe, experimental pain shocks with fingertip electrodes.
The results found that arousal from the pain stimulation consistently decreased with the increasing music-task demand. Music helps reduce pain by activating sensory pathways that compete with pain pathways, stimulating emotional responses, and engaging cognitive attention. Music, provided meaningful engagement, both emotionally and intellectually to help reduce pain.
The participants with high levels of anxiety about pain had the greatest degree of engagement, which contradicted the authors’ initial theory that anxiety would interfere with a person’s capacity to become absorbed in the music listening task. They noted that low anxiety actually may have lowered the ability to effectively engage in the task.
The results indicate that engaging activities like music listening can be effective for reducing pain in people with high anxiety, who can easily become absorbed in activities. They also noted that the interaction of anxiety and absorption is a new finding and implies that these personality characteristics should be considered when recommending engagement strategies for pain relief.