The Role of Music in the Opioid Crisis and Pain Management

By Marcie Camero

With the opioid epidemic upon us, doctors and other care providers face the constant dilemma between treating patients by their ethical standards and abiding by the ever-tightening guidelines set by regulating bodies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). From the moment pain management begins, the patient has the potential to spiral into the realm of the uncontrolled, the dependent, and the addict. Even with the best intentions, dose reduction and changes can lead patients to desperation or even suicide.

In 2016, 12,101 people in the United States died from unintentional drug overdoses involving prescription opioids; this does not differentiate those who succumbed to polypharmacy. Concurrent and adjunctive medications for conditions such as neuropathy, anxiety, depression, and insomnia inadvertently add to the risk of addiction and death. Insurance companies have the power to help the patient and the provider by adding safer, abuse deterrent options to their formularies. However, carriers such as Medicare and Medicaid opt for cost-effective drugs and require patients to attempt a minimum of three standard narcotics first — making the situation even more difficult.

These limitations have made way for alternative modalities of pain modulation to arise. Some therapies have their roots in Eastern Medicine, such as acupuncture and reflexology; others, in nature, like Cannabinoid (CBD) Oil. Nonpharmacological interventions do not have the side effects and addiction risks commonly associated with medications. Listening to music triggers a well-defined neurochemical response, creating both positive and negative emotions through endogenous opioids within the brain. The chemical pathways used in music therapy are the same reward pathways triggered by food, drugs, and sexual pleasure.

Pain relief occurs with the release of endorphins, changes in catecholamine levels, or distraction via memories the music elicits. Listening to and performing music modifies levels of serotonin, epinephrine, dopamine, oxytocin, and prolactin. It also activates the nucleus accumbens — the anticipatory pleasure network — according to several studies. Music’s simplicity and basic ability to help with pain make it the perfect adjunct to any pain medication regimen. 

Acute pain, caused by initial injury or surgical intervention, is a common starting point for opioid use and abuse. In order to offset this, hospital-based personnel set out to prove music limits narcotic use with easy implementation. The American Journal of Critical Care recently published a study confirming that lower doses and frequency of pain medications and sedation were required when music was used in the critical care setting. They also found significant decrease and control in respiratory rate, breaths per minute, heart rate, as well as self-reported pain and anxiety levels. 

Anesthesiology and surgical studies found similar effects on vital signs as well as lower complaints of, and interventions for, pain post-operatively when music is played during surgical procedures. The most clinically significant results were found in those who underwent local anesthesia procedures. Pain control in the post-operative phase can be especially problematic for children and the elderly due to the side effects of the commonly used opioid medications. The non-pharmacological benefits of music were noted in pediatric patients who listened to 30 minutes of Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and other singers of their choosing, giving them a significant reduction in pain after major surgery.

Strategies such as music therapy allow for safer options for pain management in the hospitalized patient, especially since many of them are left with poor pain control due to fears of post-administration complications.

Along with the benefits of listening to preferred music, researchers sought to evaluate whether characteristics like tempo, harmony, melody, instrumentation, volume, and pitch influence music’s overall therapeutic effect. It was determined that music which is bright, with low intensity and a slow tempo has the most positive effect on reported pain level. Furthermore, researchers found that music without lyrics seemed to provide a more substantial response.  

Overall, the use of music as an adjunct to pain management has been proven effective time and time again. Its ease of use allows it to be initiated in the hospital for acute pain, as well as at home for chronic pain. Implementing music therapy does not solely rest on the responsibility of the hospital staff, doctor, or care provider. The patient or family can discuss and arrange for music to be used as part of their daily regimen. Through earphones, 30 minutes, twice a day, patients can enjoy their favorite tunes – preferably slow, low, and bright, with or without lyrics, in order to provide significant non-pharmacological pain reduction and control. 


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