‘The drums sounded like ocean waves’: how music therapy can help chronic pain sufferers

‘I found the therapy fun; you need more fun in your life when you suffer from chronic pain’

Sufferers of chronic pain can often become isolated and unsupported both because their pain is hidden and also because it goes on for years.

For these reasons, organisations such as Chronic Pain Ireland (CPI) can be a lifeline to chronic pain sufferers offering them supports in their community or contact with other sufferers.

In 2019, 10 people from CPI volunteered to partake in Ireland’s first study of one-to-one music therapy sessions for sufferers of chronic pain. Participants suffered from various types of chronic pain including fibromyalgia, neck, pelvic and back pain, migraine, arthritis and tinnitus.

The Irish Research Council-funded study, which was led by researchers at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at University of Limerick (UL), found music therapy helped chronic pain sufferers relax. It also helped distract them from their pain and allowed them share the emotional story of their journey through chronic pain during the sessions.

Ann (55) from Co Kerry was one of those participants who found great benefit from the music therapy sessions – both as a distraction from pain as well as for the emotional release it facilitated.

A previously very fit and active person – who worked as a PE teacher – Ann’s chronic pain following a car crash has prevented her from returning to work. “For the past 10 years, I’ve been doing physiotherapy and water therapy but I’ve been on a lot of medications and I put on a lot of weight, which I’ve since lost. If I don’t exercise, I stiffen up, lose my mobility and get depressed,” she explains.

I found it a creative, refreshing way to express my emotions

Partaking in the music therapy sessions gave her a new focus. “I am an artistic person although I don’t play an instrument. I found it a creative, refreshing way to express my emotions. We all composed a song with the help of the music therapist,” she explains.

Ann says after each session, she felt “lighter and less stressed” for the next few days. “These feelings release endorphins which helped me manage the pain. The music made me feel calmer and distracted me from my pain. For example, one of the drums sounded like ocean waves which was very comforting,” she explains. Although the sessions are now finished, Ann listens to classical music most mornings to relax her before she begins her day.

Dr Hilary Moss, course director of the MA in Music Therapy at UL says sufferers of chronic pain require great resilience to cope with their ongoing pain. "Chronic pain is an invisible illness which can have catastrophic effects on work and social life, relationships and leisure interests. There is stigma and many people with chronic pain are not believed.

“The specific benefits we are seeing in music therapy is that it gives the opportunity to express yourself through music, allows you to tell your story and build hope and joy through enjoyable music making.”

I found the sessions inspiring, fun and cheerful and you need more fun in your life when you suffer from chronic pain

Christine (65), a writer from the west of Ireland, who suffers from tinnitus, burning mouth syndrome (a neuropathic pain condition which affects various parts of the mouth) and spinal pain, was another participant in the study. She says the lack of multidisciplinary teams in rural Ireland makes it harder for people with chronic pain to get appropriate treatment.

“I was happy to try music therapy because I play the piano and the guitar. I found the sessions inspiring, fun and cheerful and you need more fun in your life when you suffer from chronic pain.”

Christine also says playing music and composing a song in the music therapy sessions was a great distraction from her pain. She would like to see opportunities for chronic pain sufferers to partake in group music therapy sessions.

Katie Fitzpatrick, music therapist and lead researcher of the study at UL, is hoping to do another study of how group music therapy sessions might help people with chronic pain. Participants from that study will be recruited through Chronic Pain Ireland.

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