What Music Can Do for Your RA

Patient Expert
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When I was growing up, both my parents were music teachers. They both taught out of our house, so I spent my afternoons doing homework to the sweet sounds of honking clarinets attempting concertos. At dinnertime, or when at rest, Bach, Mozart, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane filled the silence.

Music is now an integral part of my life. It is like a friend, versatile and generous, who is there to comfort and guide or simply accompany me. Music has become especially important, and taken on several new roles in my life since being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

People use music as a means of therapy, and studies suggest it improves symptoms for a wide variety of ailments, ranging from depression and anxiety to high blood pressure and even pain. I won’t claim that music has alleviated my pain from RA — listening to Adele has not shrunken my knuckles back to size — but here are reasons why I’m thankful for music, and all it’s done for me on my journey with RA.

Music can motivate you

As a baseball player, nothing was better than pump-up music. As much as I loved the in-game competition, I truly cherished the times in a teammate’s car, headed to the ballpark listening to Notorious BIG and Wu Tang Clan at bone-crushing volumes. In those moments, an elixir coursed through my veins that made me feel I could do just about anything — run through a brick wall, choke out Hulk Hogan — which, at 5’10” and 185 lbs., were some lofty delusions. It was like music was a drug, and indeed it motivated me to do things I don’t believe I could’ve done without it.

With RA, I won’t be running through brick walls anytime soon. There’s no more baseball for me, and nothing in my life that warrants warlike preparation. But still, music is a significant motivator and inspiration. I rely on a mix of current hip-hop — from A$AP Rocky to Joey Bada$$ to Drake — among trusted old-school artists, to get me to the gym, and when I’m there, the music gives me what I need to stay five extra minutes, and do that last rep.

Mentally, music also is an inspiration. When I write, I like to have its companionship. It can be thought-provoking, it can give color and depth to imagination and make me want to take off my jacket, stay a while, and create something interesting and worthwhile.

The right song list can enhance a good mood

Whether you’re at a party, on a road trip, or chilling solo, music is the best sustenance for a quality mood. Hearing a song you recognize and singing the lyrics can be such a simple, yet rewarding experience. Or, even better: Hearing a song you’ve never heard that emotionally grips you, speaks to you — this can be very special.

Even just a part of a song can be (pardon my hyperbole) akin to a religious experience. It can send tingles through you; it can make you close your eyes and smile. It can change a week, or month, or year of your life for the better. In 2013, when I released my first book, “Beyond Folly,” Arcade Fire had a song out called “Reflektor,” which I listened to nearly every day, including the drive home from my book launch, as I screamed out the window with excitement. When I hear that song now, I remember the exhilaration of that month, and I feel nostalgic, and grateful.

Music helps you embrace the melancholy that can be part of life with RA

In the English courses I teach, I often have music on during class. Even as I lecture, there’s usually something in the background, and this leads to discussion. I tell my students that sad songs move me the most. I end up gravitating toward them and remembering them.

Students hear this and their reaction is to be concerned. But really, it is quite simple. Sad music is beautiful and honest. I don’t think it is unhealthy or disturbing to acknowledge that there is pain in the world, and with that pain an ongoing quest to reconcile it.

In sad music, you can hear someone else’s experience, someone else’s story, even if there are no words. An example of a sad but beautiful is “Adagio in G Minor” by Albinoni. For people with RA, I think there is an opportunity for therapy here, because there is solace, and there is catharsis in the unity of struggle. One of the reasons I think sad music is beautiful is because often there are glimpses, even just for a moment or phrase, of hope.

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