Listening to music by Taylor Swift, Rihanna and other performers significantly helps to reduce pain in pediatric patients after surgery, according to a new study at Northwestern University. Audio books also worked well in relieving post-operative pain in children.
Children are often given opioids for post-operative pain, but due to the fear of side effects such as respiratory depression, doctors often limit the amount of opioids given to them. In addition, the use of non-opioid analgesics such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain control in children is hindered by a lack of studies on their effectiveness and safety. As a result, post-operative pain is often poorly controlled in pediatric patients.
“Audio therapy is an exciting opportunity and should be considered by hospitals as an important strategy to minimize pain in children undergoing major surgery,” said study senior author Dr. Santhanam Suresh, a professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “This is inexpensive and doesn’t have any side effects.”
The study, which is published in Pediatric Surgery International, included 56 pediatric patients between the ages of 9 and 14 at Lurie’s Children’s Hospital in Chicago. They were asked to choose from a playlist of music in different genres including pop, country, rock and classical. Short audio books were another option in the study.
This is believed to be the first randomized study to evaluate the use of patient-preferred audio therapy as a strategy to control post-surgical pain in children. The children reported their pain levels based on identifying facial images such as a grimace or tears or a happy face to illustrate how they were feeling.
The children were divided into three groups; one heard 30 minutes of music of their choice, one heard 30 minutes of stories of their choice and one listened to 30 minutes of silence via noise-canceling headphones. The patients in the music and story groups had a significant reduction in pain. The patients who heard silence did not experience a change in pain.
“There is a certain amount of learning that goes on with pain,” said Suresh, who believes audio-therapy helps by distracting patients — thwarting a secondary pathway in the brain’s prefrontal cortex involved in the memory of pain.
“The idea is, if you don’t think about it, maybe you won’t experience it as much. We are trying to cheat the brain a little bit. We are trying to refocus mental channels on to something else.”
Suresh believes that letting patients choose their music or stories is an important part of the treatment. The therapy worked regardless of a patient’s initial pain score.
“It didn’t matter whether their pain score was lower or higher when they were first exposed to the audio therapy,” Suresh said. “It worked for everyone and can also be used in patients who have had ambulatory surgery and are less likely to receive opioids at home.”
An unexpected finding was the effectiveness of the audio books. Researchers say some parents reported the audio books were “soothing and distracting” and helped their children calm down and fall asleep.
Several previous studies have found that music helps reduce pain in pediatric patients. In a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers reported that listening to soothing tunes by Enya or upbeat songs like Sunny Days (the theme from Sesame Street) reduced pain and distress for kids being administered an intravenous line.
Music can also help reduce pain in adults. Researchers at the University of Kentucky reported that music reduces pain after surgery, while multiple sclerosis patients in Los Angeles say the simple act of beating drums in a “drum circle” helps reduce their pain.