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Listening to music reduces pain in mice, and possibly humans

Mosh pits suddenly make a lot more sense.

By Cassidy Ward
Boy with a broken leg playing a red guitar at home.

Recently, the Foo Fighters successfully married music and pain in their horror comedy film Studio 666. In the film, the band sets up shop in a haunted house in the hope that it might inspire them to write and record their next album. Of course, supernatural violence occurs when the band encounters the angry ghosts of bands past. It’s a story of the ways in which music can carry itself across decades, bringing pain with it.

Luckily for those of us in the real world, music often has the opposite effect. Certainly, music can be emotionally painful, especially if we associate it with a difficult time in our lives, but there’s evidence that it can have a positive mental impact, including relieving physical pain.

As far back as the 1960s dentists documented an apparent analgesic, i.e., pain relieving, effect in patients who were exposed to noise during and after medical procedures, but the underlying mechanisms were unclear. That makes a certain amount of sense even without a scientific explanation. Sounds, particularly those of entertaining music, serve to distract people from whatever else is going on around them and that might be enough on its own to relieve pain. It turns out that might only be part of the story.

New research from scientists at the Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine and the University of Science and Technology of China appears to confirm that noise has a physical effect on pain signals in the brain which extends beyond simple distraction. Their findings were published in the journal Science.

Using mice as an experimental model, scientists generated pain by injecting complete freund’s adjuvant — a suspension of heat-killed mycobacterium in paraffin oil — which causes inflammation. They then exposed the mice to noise and measured their response to pain. They found that the parts of the brain involved in auditory processing are functionally connected to the regions which process pain. As a result, exposure to sounds might be disrupting the process of pain signals, thereby acting as an analgesic.

They targeted sounds with a low signal to noise ratio of approximately 5 decibels and found that to be most effective. Moreover, it’s that level of sound which is apparently important to achieve the effect, not the type of sound used.

In experiments, pain relief is achieved in relatively equal amounts irrespective of if the mouse or patient is exposed to white noise, nature sounds, or music of any genre. Of course, listening to entertaining music or pleasing sounds is a preferable way to take your medicine. It’s the auditory equivalent of a spoonful of sugar.

Interestingly, scientists also found that the analgesic effect persisted for more than two days after the cessation of sound-based intervention. This adds additional evidence to the hypothesis that it isn’t purely a result of anxiety or stress reduction or distraction from pain. Still, precisely what is going on inside the brain and body isn’t wholly understood and further research is needed. That’s especially true because the neuronal circuits involved in both pain and auditory processing are more complex in humans than they are in mice and may not work in precisely the same way.

The next time you’re setting down to the tattoo table or having a medical procedure performed, take a little time to plan your preferred playlist. It could make the whole experience a lot easier to endure, but it might also make you associate your favorite tunes with a root canal. You’ve been warned.