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Music Reduces Experience of Pain, Especially Among People with High Anxiety

posted 11:42 PM EST, Tue December 27, 2011
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Looking for a way to control your pain without resorting to addictive opiates? Well, researchers say you might as well start by putting on some of your favorite music, because in one recent study, listening to music actually reduced sensations of pain.

Researchers at the University of Utah Pain Research Center wondered if music might produce more than emotional response; they wondered if music might also be used as a form of analgesic medicine, speculating that music might disrupt a person’s ability to attend to sensations of pain and thereby reduce the intensity of experienced pain.

To test their hypothesis they enlisted 143 study volunteers and:

  1. Had each subject listen to music and complete a task that consisted of following the melody in a song and listening for deviant tones within that melody
  2. Gave periodic electroshocks via electrodes attached to each subject’s fingertips
  3. Measured overall arousal levels during the experiment (looking to find out if electroshocks given during music tasks elicited less arousal than electroshocks given without accompanying music tasks)

The Results

  • Engaging in a music task reduced the experience of pain.
  • The subjects who went into the experiment with the most anxiety about the pain they would experience achieved the greatest reduction in pain


The study authors suggest 3 explanations for music’s ability to reduce the experience of pain:

  1. Music activates certain sensory pathways in the brain and when these pathways are activated the brain is less able to make use of similar sensory pathways that transmit pain information
  2. Music can elicit a positive emotional state which protects against the experience of pain
  3. When attending to music you are less able to attend to the experience of pain


The researchers recommend listening to music as a way to control pain, particularly for people who feel high levels of anxiety about pain and for those who can become very engrossed in a task.

The full study results can be read in the Dec 2011 edition of the Journal of Pain

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Story Highlights
  • Music Reduces Sensations of Pain: Listening to music disrupts a person's ability to attend to pain.
  • For Those with High Anxiety: Music caused the greatest reductions in experienced pain among those with highest pain anxiety.
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