Mice and Mozart: Can Music Make Pain Meds More Effective?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is widely considered the most gifted and prolific composer in the history of classical music. Mozart composed over 600 symphonies, concertos and operas, and many remain popular two centuries after his death.

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WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART

Were he alive today, Mozart would probably be flattered to learn that his music is being studied as a pain reliever.  And amused that some of his most devoted listeners are mice.

Music therapy won’t cure chronic pain, but there’s a growing body of evidence that it helps distract and alleviate pain and anxiety. Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos” has been found to be particularly helpful in treating patients with epilepsy.

Researchers at the University of Utah took that theory a step further, to see if music can decrease pain and improve the effectiveness of ibuprofen and cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive compound found in marijuana.

"We know these drugs work without music but they can produce toxicity and adverse effects," said senior author Grzegorz Bulaj, PhD, an associate professor in medicinal chemistry at University of Utah Health. “The holy grail is to combine the right drug with this new paradigm of music exposure, so we do not need as much drug for analgesic effects."

‘Music is Like DNA’

Bulaj and his colleagues selected some of Mozart’s compositions and arranged them on a playlist for laboratory mice. That’s right, mice. Humans were not part of the study.

The playlist was made up of two faster-paced allegro sections separated by a slower adagio section — with “Sonata for Two Pianos” played multiple times. The goal was to “balance arousal” and “minimize any potential stress on the mice.”

"Music is like DNA. We had musicians analyze sequences of several Mozart pieces to optimize the playlist," Bulaj said. "This was exciting but challenging to integrate these musical analyses into neuropharmacology."

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The mice were divided into two groups (five to eight mice in each group), with a control group exposed to ambient noise, while mice in the music group listened to the Mozart playlist three times a day for 21 days.

Both groups were given ibuprofen, CBD and two epilepsy drugs. The mice received one sub-optimal dose of each drug and then put through a series of inflammatory pain tests in the laboratory.

When combined with music, ibuprofen reduced inflammation in the mice by 93 percent compared to ibuprofen alone. Mice exposed to Mozart and CBD had a 70 percent reduction in inflammation compared to CBD with no music. Researchers say they were unable to evaluate the effectiveness of music with epilepsy drugs.

"There is emerging evidence that music interventions can alleviate pain when administered either alone or in combination with other therapies," said first author Cameron Metcalf, PhD, a research assistant professor in Pharmacology and Toxicology at University of Utah Health. "I was particularly excited to see reduced swelling in the inflammatory pain model."

According to Metcalf, medications currently available to treat inflammation do not show such a robust response. "It is exciting to think of what this might mean for the anti-inflammatory effects of music interventions and where the research may take us next," he said.

Mice hear at different frequencies than humans, and the effect of music volume or duration remains unclear. So is the type of music. Is Mozart a better pain reliever than Beyonce? We don’t know. Also unclear is whether any of these results can be duplicated in people. But Bulaj believes future studies should explore the pairing of music with pain relievers.

"If we could package music and other non-pharmacological therapies into mobile apps and deliver them with drugs and it works, it will be better than drugs alone," Bulaj said. "It is exciting to find new ways to improve pain treatments."

Mozart didn’t need an app or mice to figure that out. “Music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it,” he wrote to a friend.

The study findings are published online in the journal Frontiers in Neurology.

4 M’s That Can Help Lower Pain Levels

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

This month I am looking at the 4 M’s of pain management as part of my series on alternative pain treatments: magnets, massage, mindfulness and music.  

Once again, I know and understand that these therapies will not help everyone. And when they do offer some relief, it will be temporary and vary in nature. That’s no reason not to try them.

Mindfulness

I found mindfulness helpful and now use mindfulness techniques in my daily life to assist in pain management.

When I first started to look at mindfulness, I turned to Melissa Geraghty, PsyD, for input on the benefits and techniques. Dr. Geraghty serves on iPain’s medical advisory board and is a chronic pain patient herself.

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“It’s human nature to pull away from pain, whether that pain is physical or emotional. We inherently try to avoid pain or distract ourselves from pain,” she told me.

“Maybe in the short term we feel avoiding or distracting ourselves helps, but this is not sustainable with chronic pain. The pain will always be there, so we can either continue to be stuck in the cycle of fighting it, or we can accept that we have chronic pain and figure out how to engage in our lives.”

Mindfulness is used to reduce stress, depression, anxiety and pain levels, and can also be used in drug addiction counseling. Clinical studies have documented both physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness for different medical conditions, as well as in healthy adults and children.

Mindfulness involves several meditation exercises designed to develop mindfulness skills. One method is to sit comfortably, close your eyes, and bring attention to either the sensations of breathing in one’s nostrils or to the movements of the abdomen when breathing in and out. When engaged in this practice, the mind will often run off to other thoughts and associations. When this happens, one passively notices that the mind has wandered, and in an accepting, non-judgmental way, you return to focus on breathing.

Other meditation exercises to develop mindfulness include body-scan meditation, where attention is directed at various areas of the body and body sensations. You can also focus on sounds, thoughts, feelings and actions that are going on around you. A mindfulness session is typically done in short periods of about 10 minutes. The more you practice, the easier it is to focus your attention and breathing.

I recently had a mindfulness session with a therapist as part of a documentary I was filming. I noticed that having someone guide me through a session, as opposed to doing it on my own, was very beneficial. I got to focus on positive thinking, letting go of negatives that happen in life, and living life in the now.

“Mindfulness practice allows people with chronic pain to participate in the moment instead of watching life pass you by. Life may not flow in the way you expected it to before chronic pain, but living in an endless cycle of psychological misery isn’t living at all,” says Dr. Geraghty.

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy is another treatment that I use. My husband and I purchased a massage table back in 2005 at the suggestion of my physical therapist. I can do exercises on it or have my husband give me massages as needed. This is especially good for migraines, headaches and overall blood flow in my body.

There is conflicting information on whether massage helps relieve pain and others symptoms associated with nerve pain diseases. Much of the scientific studies show beneficial short term effects, and I agree with them based on my own experiences.

Not only do I find massage therapy helpful with my pain levels, it also helps me relax and let go of stress. My massage therapist told me that even a single massage session has been shown to significantly lower heart rate, cortisol and insulin levels --- which  reduce stress.

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Massage can also improve posture, which helps reinforce healthy movement. Other benefits of massage are better breathing and training the body how to relax. Clinical studies have shown that massage may be useful for chronic low-back pain, neck pain and osteoarthritis of the knee.

Magnet Therapy

Magnet therapy dates back at least 2,000 years, according to New York University Langone Medical Center. Healers in Europe and Asia used magnets to treat many different ailments, believing that the magnets can draw disease from the body.

Typically, therapeutic magnets are integrated into bracelets, rings, shoe inserts, clothing and even mattresses. Despite a lack of scientific evidence that magnet therapy works, an estimated $1 billion a year is spent on the sale of therapeutic magnets worldwide. Makers of these products claim they help increase blood flow to areas of the body where the magnet is worn, which brings in more oxygen and helps tissues heal faster. While larger studies have shown little to no therapeutic value in magnets, some smaller studies have found some benefit.

Pain patient Elizabeth Kandu is a believer in magnet therapy, although she’s not sure how it works.

“Who really knows if it’s a placebo effect or really works in everyone,” she says. “For me, without at least the metal to skin in 2 or 3 places, I am an electric nightmare.”

Elizabeth is right that there may be some placebo effect in play, but if magnets provide some relief they may be worth a try. It will be interesting to hear from PNN readers who have tried magnets and if any therapeutic value was found.

Music Therapy

I have been using music to excite my soul since childhood. I now also use it to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs that come with living in pain.

According to Warrior Music Foundation’s Michael Caimona, music provides sensory stimulation, stirs emotional responses, facilitates social interaction and communication, and provides diversion from inactivity.  Music also helps us get through sad times and helps us heal from bad times.

I’ve found music to be an effective tool in reducing pain levels and anxiety, and it helps stimulate the brain. I have even had surgeons put on music during my procedures. Although I cannot hear it consciously under anesthesia, I am able to hear it subconsciously and believe in the positivity of it. I also use music during infusion therapy and on moderate pain days.

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Another study I found reported that children who listened to music while having an IV needle inserted into their arms showed less distress and felt less pain than the children who did not listen to music. Research also shows that music therapy helps patients become more engaged in their treatment and physical therapy.

There are two different forms of music therapy, active and receptive. The patient can actively create music with instruments or by singing. In receptive therapy, the patient is more relaxed and is listening or participating in other activates while the music is being played.

I hope that spotlighting these alternative pain treatments will help readers understand that there are many forms of therapy, and it’s up to each patient to find what works for them. Many times as patients we feel we have tried everything. But until your pain is at a constant low number on the 1-10 pain scale or a zero, I encourage you to keep discussing options and trying new treatments.

The goal is to get the best living you can out of each day. I look forward to hearing what has and hasn’t worked for you.

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.