Medicinal Music

FebHealthPicThere’s a pill for just about everything nowadays. Pills to make you feel happy; pills to calm you down. But, many of these pills can be addicting, and are ruining lives. In this column, we are going to talk about something that can be all around us, inside us, costs nothing, and can be tailored to our individual needs – music. That’s right, medicinal music.

How does it work? Most of us feel something when we listen to music – some of us even cry through certain pieces no matter how many times we’ve heard them (that would be me). Once sound travels through our ears, it arrives in the brain and is interpreted by several different parts of the brain. Much like other things – food and alcohol, for example – music also may have an effect on the pleasure centers in the brain and we interpret it as enjoyable. It also releases dopamine, a chemical substance in the body that can improve our mood and motivation.

What can music do for us and our health? There have been several studies done over the past few decades investigating whether or not there is a connection between music and health. According to the Harvard University School of Medicine, music has been shown to lower the risk of falling in the elderly (1 in 3 will fall in a year), lowers blood pressure, decreases stress, improves mood, can lower the need for certain medications after having a heart attack, and can help people regain memory after suffering a stroke. Music can also decrease chemicals that cause inflammation in the body, and helps us fight infection. In one study, patients having surgery listened to music which lowered their blood pressure to beneficial levels. This, in turn, also helped the surgeons feel less stress because they knew their patients were in good shape.

The first child I gave birth to back in 1985 was born by cesarean section after 27 hours in labor – ouch! When we finally got into the operating room (OR), my obstetrician asked me if I liked Kenny Rogers because that’s who was playing on the boom box. I said, “I like anybody you like right now,” just wanting to get it over with, and certainly not wanting to spend more time waiting for a tape of my favorite music. But, I remember thinking, “How cool is this? Music in the OR!” Many times in my work as a nurse and as a mother, I comforted children having painful procedures done by singing to them or with them – it is such a natural way of caring for ourselves and others.

How can we incorporate music into our lives for good health? Music can decrease chronic pain, an unfortunate condition for many truckers. Low back pain is a big one for occupations in which the person is seated for long periods of time, so it is especially true for drivers. Some studies have shown that listening to quiet, soothing music can lessen pain sensation. In other studies, the participants were allowed to choose their own music. No one can say for sure which works best, but it’s probably safe to assume that the music I like might not appeal to you, or vice-versa, so choosing your own might be the wisest way to proceed.

People with sleep disorders may also use music to help them fall asleep and stay that way. Good, quality sleep is especially important for truckers who need to have their wits about them any time they are on the road.

As we get older (I know, you think you never will, but you will), our memory has some trip-ups and there is a greater risk of developing a dementia, like Alzheimer’s Disease. One of the suggestions made to prevent or slow the development of such a disease, based on scientific studies, is to learn how to play an instrument. It makes many parts of your brain have to work and builds new “muscle” in your noggin. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you haul around a grand piano, but something small and portable like a harmonica, tin whistle, recorder, guitar or flute. Anything you want to learn is now available on the internet and YouTube, so have some fun and go for it. A study conducted in Sweden showed that people who attended live concerts (not just listening to music on the radio) lived longer (all other things being equal, like being a non-smoker, having enough money to live on, etc.), so go out and enjoy some good live music.

If you have to have any kind of a clinical study – an MRI, perhaps – it can be a really stressful event. Ask if the facility you are going to has music in the MRI tunnel. Yes, it’s true, some do, and it can make a huge difference in the way you feel while you are having the study. Look around until you find a place that wants you to feel comfortable; you’ll also get a better study, because you will feel less anxious during the procedure.

And, of course, listen to music while you are working. Many of you probably already do that, but you might not be thinking about how to make the music work best for you. If you are listening to heavy metal while getting frustrated in traffic, you might want to change to something more relaxing to calm yourself down. On the contrary, if you are feeling sleepy, turn up the volume and listen to faster music that wakes you up. And, if you feel so inclined, write your own songs. There is a whole genre of trucker music out there – who knows, maybe you’ll get famous!

While these suggestions might seem really obvious, it’s nice to know that there is science behind the things we take for granted, or just never really thought about. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who wrote Awakenings, said: “The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental. It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.” So, get your groove on, and stay healthy!

About Norma Stephens Hannigan

Norma Stephens Hannigan is a Doctor of Nursing Practice who recently retired after a 43-year career providing direct care and teaching future nurses and nurse practitioners. Dr. Norma has treated many truck drivers at the various clinics she has worked. She currently writes for 10-4 from her home in Newburgh, NY.