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University of Utah study suggests that music can alleviate pain

Published April 9, 2012 6:02 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If you prick your finger and dip it in alcohol, it will sting.

But if you prick your finger, dip it in alcohol and sing the final verse of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" you probably won't feel the pain as much.

That is a simplified version of a study that was conducted recently at the University of Utah's Pain Research Center.

Five doctors at the center — part of the Department of Anesthesiology — discovered that when volunteers were busy listening to and engaging with music, they were distracted from mild pain. The study results were published in the December issue of the provocatively named Journal of Pain.

Researcher David Bradshaw, who also is a musician, found that his headaches where usually forgotten when he practiced music. He wondered if others experienced the same thing.

He got four of his colleagues — Gary Donaldson, Robert Jacobsen, Yoshio Nakamura and C. Richard Chapman — to help him answer the question.

They introduced a painful stimulation to the fingertips for 153 volunteers, then recorded the reactions.

The volunteers then listened to simple melodies and tones through a headset. They were asked to tell the researchers when those melodies deviated from what was expected. The music they listened to was developed by Miguel Chuaqui, chair of the composition program at the U. School of Music.

When the volunteers were busy listening to and engaging with music, they were distracted from the pain they felt in their fingertips, the research showed.

"Pain has a psychological component. The more you think about your pain, the more pain you have," said Carlene J. Brown, an associate professor of music and director of the music therapy program at Seattle Pacific University. "Anything that can interrupt that [decreases] pain."

Brown is a classical pianist, and — much like Bradshaw — she said she "loses herself in playing."

Both Brown and Bradshaw say there is no single piece of music that will help all people.

Heavy metal music does "rev people up," he said, and it can be useful for "sharp, acute, intense pain, in an invasive procedure."

But usually music that is personal and "takes you away" is best for alleviating pain.

For Bradshaw, that's jazz music, specifically John Coltrane's tenor saxophone solo on the title track of his "Giant Steps" album.

"Choose music you are familiar with," he said. "Music you like."