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How Music Can Help Health Conditions

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John Whyte, MD, MPH - Blogs
By John Whyte, MD, MPHBoard-certified internistDecember 28, 2018

Music plays an important role in our lives. We listen to it in our cars, on the subway, at the gym, and sometimes during meals. For many of us, it’s an integral part of our daily routines.

We all know from our own personal experience how it affects our mood. Depending upon what type we are listening to, it can make us happy and upbeat, sad and reminiscent, or simply relaxed. Think about it—I bet you change what you listen to based on how you’re feeling (or how you would like to feel). I always seem to be in traffic jams, so for me, listening to classical music helps keep me calm while snarled on my way to/from work. But on Saturday evenings, you’ll find me serving up some Taio Cruz for a dance party with my toddler sons.

It can keep us calm or rev us up, but can listening to music actually improve your health? There’s a growing body of research showing that music, alone or in combination with other therapies, can significantly improve various health conditions.

Depression

Numerous imaging studies such as functional MRIs have shown that while we’re listening to music, our brain releases certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These chemicals are related to the brain’s reward center, which gives us that “feel-good” feeling. In fact, antidepressants work by impacting these specific neurochemicals. If you’re living with depression, talk to your therapist about how you benefit from incorporating music into your treatment regimen.

Dementia

Given music’s impact on mood, it’s not surprising that music therapy may help with dementia.  It won’t reverse the symptoms or improve memory, but it can help with some of the behavioral and language issues that are particularly challenging to manage. Several recent studies have demonstrated significant improvement in orientation, depression, and anxiety in both mild and moderate cases as well as with delirium, hallucinations agitation, irritability, and language disorders. A few studies showed improvement in cognitive measures after only 4 music therapy sessions. And if music is combined with dance therapy, there could be even more improvement. Drug therapy options remain limited, so adding music to a daily routine could be worth a try to improve quality of life.

Chronic Pain

Pain results from multiple and complicated neurologic mechanisms. Music seems to impact pain by affecting key neurotransmitters. Listening to music often helps you focus on your breathing, slowing it down if you are in discomfort. It can also reduce your heart rate and might even lower blood pressure – probably by releasing tension in your muscles, including those in your blood vessels. Just as in running, endorphins are released. As a result, music may offer pain relief through natural means, without the use of drugs (or at decreased amounts). And, given the concerns we now have about narcotics, any way we can reduce our dependence on pain killers is a worthwhile effort.

We are only beginning to understand the impact it can have on your health – but what we know so far is exciting.  You might want to talk to your doctor or therapist about including music in your treatment regimen.

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About the Author
John Whyte, MD, MPH

John Whyte, MD, MPH, is a board-certified internist and the Chief Medical Officer at WebMD, where he leads efforts to develop and expand strategic partnerships that create meaningful change around important and timely public health issues. As a popular health writer, he has been published extensively both in medical and mainstream publications.

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