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Listening to music can cut post-surgical pain experienced by children

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Listening to music immediately after surgery appears to help young patients cope with pain, according to a US study.

Paediatric patients who listened to 30 minutes of songs by Rihanna, Taylor Swift and other singers of their choosing – or audio books – had a significant reduction in pain after major surgery.

During the study around 60 patients received pain evaluations prior to and after receiving the audio therapy. They reported their pain levels based on identifying facial images such as a grimace, tears or a happy face to illustrate how they were feeling.

“We are trying to cheat the brain a little bit. We are trying to refocus mental channels on to something else”

Santhanam Suresh

The children were divided into three groups – one heard 30 minutes of music of their choice, one heard 30 minutes of stories of their choice and one listened to 30 minutes of silence via noise-cancelling headphones.

The patients in the music and story groups had a significant reduction in pain. The patients who heard silence did not experience a change in pain.

The children in the music group, aged nine to 14, chose from a playlist of different genres including pop, country, rock and classical.

Strategies to control post-surgical pain without medication are important, noted the study authors, because opioid analgesics can cause breathing problems in children. As a result, the amount of opiods prescribed is usually limited and children’s pain is not well controlled.

“Audio therapy is an exciting opportunity and should be considered by hospitals as an important strategy to minimize pain in children undergoing major surgery,” said lead researcher. Dr Santhanam Suresh, professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics at Northwestern University in Chicago.

“This is inexpensive and doesn’t have any side effects,” he added.

The researchers believe their study to be the first randomized trial to evaluate and demonstrate the use of patient-preferred audio therapy as a promising strategy to control post-surgical pain in children.

Prior studies looked at the effectiveness of music for pain during short medical procedures, but they did not use objective measures of pain nor did they show whether the perception of pain was affected by the music itself.

Professor Suresh said he believed the audio-therapy helped thwart a secondary pathway in the prefrontal cortex involved in the memory of pain.

“There is a certain amount of learning that goes on with pain,” he said. “The idea is, if you don’t think about it, maybe you won’t experience it as much. We are trying to cheat the brain a little bit. We are trying to refocus mental channels on to something else.”

The therapy worked regardless of a patient’s initial pain score, he said. “It didn’t matter whether their pain score was lower or higher when they were first exposed to the audio therapy,” he said. “It worked for everyone and can also be used in patients who have had ambulatory surgery and are less likely to receive opiods at home.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of the study was the ability for patients to continue their own audio therapy,” he added. “After the study, several patients ended up bringing in their iPods and listening to their own music. They hadn’t thought of it before.”

The findings have just been published in the journal Pediatric Surgery International.

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