The Soundtrack for Surgical Healing

Research into the healing properties of music isn’t new, but the field of study recently was launched a bit farther with substantial evidence that listening to music before, during or after a surgical procedure helps patients by reducing pain, anxiety and the need for pain medication.

The results of the research published in Lancet involved about 7,000 subjects, and is considered the most comprehensive review so far of how music helps people cope with medical adventures.

The meta analysis (in which the results of multiple studies are reviewed and analyzed) included 72 published, randomized trials examining the effect of music on postoperative recovery in adult patients undergoing various surgical procedures. It was compared with more traditional forms of clinical care or other nondrug interventions, such as massage.

The impressive, significant review showed that, after surgery, patients were notably less anxious after listening to music and reported less pain and a diminished need for pain meds compared with the study subjects who didn’t tune in.

More than 51 million surgical operations are performed annually in the U.S.

Listening to music at any time was beneficial, but seemed to result in even better outcomes if patients listened before rather than during or after surgery. And, as music therapists have known, when patients listen to music that they choose and that they prefer, the results are even better at reducing pain.

Music is so influential, the study found, that if it was played even when patients were under general anesthetic pain levels were reported as lower, although the effects were more significant when they were conscious.

Although music clearly helped patients heal, it did not reduce the length of their hospital stays. But being in the hospital is usually such a lousy experience that anything that makes it better is welcome, whether it’s bringing your own pillow from home, or your iPod loaded with Taylor Swift (or James Taylor, in my case) and Mozart.

As Dr. Catherine Meads, the study’s lead author, said, “Music is a noninvasive, safe, cheap intervention that should be available to everyone undergoing surgery. Patients should be allowed to choose the type of music they would like to hear to maximize the benefit to their wellbeing. However, care needs to be taken that music does not interfere with the medical team’s communication.”

A reasonable point, but because many surgeons like to work accompanied by music piped into the OR, it’s equally reasonable to allow the patient to control the remote, so to speak, especially if it improves outcomes.

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