Music Therapy Can Relieve Pain

by Christina Lasich, MD Health Professional

Listening to music is more than just another way to pass the time. Music has a huge impact on the brain. Because listening to music can be a form of psychotherapy, many hospitals employee music therapists to guide patients on a musical journey that can greatly reduce suffering and promote healing. By exploring the impact that a melody can have on the brain, we can begin to understand why music might actually help relieve pain.

When you are feeling blue, music can help to lift your spirits. By influencing the negative emotional states, music can change the way pain intensity is perceived. Sadness, loneness, and anger are all examples of emotions that can cause the pain to feel worse. Joy, happiness, and bliss are all emotional states that can blunt the intensity of pain. By listening to the right music, these emotional states can be altered. By changing the way you feel, music can then alter the way pain is felt as well.

Music can also influence the nervous system, specifically the autonomic nervous system. Theoretically, music influences the vagus nerve (10th Cranial nerve) via the larynx (vocal chords), ears, and facial muscles. Portions of the vagus nerve control the "tone" or activity of both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system (the autonomic nervous system). This system creates a state of arousal during "fight or flight" sympathetic nervous system stimulation. The parasympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system promotes relaxation while eating or sleeping. According to the "PolyVagal Theory," music is in fact able to influence the nervous system via the vagus nerve. By affecting this powerful pathway in the nervous system, one can potentially control pain by listening to music.

Regardless of scientific theories, music has long been known to affect mood. Movie makers take advantage of this fact by creating various moods during the movie with musical scores. For example, everyone feels tension when the infamous "Psycho" music is played. This type of anxiety or tension also creates muscle tension and can amplify pain intensity. Listening to the musical score from movies like "Room With a View" or "Out of Africa" can create a relaxing feeling that can slow the breathing, release muscle tension and relieve pain.

So next time you are feeling blue, nervous, or anxious, try listening to some music before these states of mind cause your pain to feel worse.
The power of music is well known and scientifically based deep within the nervous system. For this reason, music therapy is good medicine.

For more information:

Please visit the Louis Armstrong Department of Music Therapy at Mount Sinai Beth Isreal Hospital (

Porges, SW. The PolyVagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self Regulation. New York, NY: Norton 2011

Christina Lasich, MD
Meet Our Writer
Christina Lasich, MD

Christina Lasich, M.D., wrote about chronic pain and osteoarthritis for HealthCentral. She is physiatrist in Grass Valley, California. She specializes in pain management and spine rehabilitation.