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The Medicinal Magic of Music

Managing RA

January 18, 2024

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Photography by Luis Herrera/Stocksy United

Photography by Luis Herrera/Stocksy United

by Ashley Boynes Shuck

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Medically Reviewed by:

Francis Kuehnle, MSN, RN-BC

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•••••

by Ashley Boynes Shuck

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Francis Kuehnle, MSN, RN-BC

•••••

•••••

Music can help reduce stress and pain, and improve mood and cognition. It’s been a lifeline for me when all else fails.

Music — it’s a universal language that transcends boundaries and cultures, and has been a source of enjoyment for people all over the world and throughout history.

But did you know that music has also been a source of solace and strength for countless individuals facing health challenges?

For me personally, music has served as a lifeline through difficult times.

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The therapeutic power of music

As a powerful medium of expression, music has been proven to possess the ability to influence both our physical and mental well-being.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy refers to using music as part of a treatment plan.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy “is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.”

1. Stress reduction

One of the most widely acknowledged benefits of music is its capacity to reduce stress. A review from 2013 suggests that music positively affects our stress response, leading to faster recoveries from stressful situations.

Listening to calming melodies might be able to trigger the release of endorphins, our body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals, which may promote a sense of relaxation and well-being, and can alleviate stress levels.

Other studies have also demonstrated that exposure to music can lead to decreased cortisol levels, which is the hormone most closely associated with stress in humans. For example, an older study from 2003 showed that music helped to dampen cortisol increases after experiencing a stressor.

2. Enhanced mood and emotional well-being

Music has a profound and lasting impact on our emotions and state of mind. Upbeat tunes can elevate our mood, increase feelings of joy, and serve as an effective tool for emotional expression.

You might prefer to play sad music when experiencing grief or hard times. Music can also be tied to memories, so you might listen to songs that remind you of particular times or people.

For those of us grappling with health challenges, this emotional release can be a crucial component of coping and resilience.

3. Cognitive benefits

Music can stimulate various parts of the brain, possibly contributing to improved cognitive function and even focus. It has been linked to enhanced memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.

For example, a 2019 study found that musical activity can promote better memory in older adults.

This is particularly relevant for individuals navigating health issues, the aging population, or neurodivergent folks. Maintaining cognitive abilities can be integral to overall well-being for many.

4. Pain management

Music has emerged as a unique but solid ally in the battle against pain, offering a fun, enriching, and effective approach to pain management.

Listening to music might alter our perception of pain by promoting relaxation. One way is because it simply distracts us. Listening to music actively shifts the focus of the mind away from physical discomfort.

Music’s ability to trigger endorphins can also help with pain, as they have been shown to act as the body’s natural pain relievers.

For example, this review of studies found that music often helps to reduce pain after operations. Another review also suggests that music can be an effective reliever for different types of pain, including acute, procedural, and chronic.

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My story with music

For me, music is like an oasis in a desert of discomfort.

Living with a chronic condition brings its own set of challenges, and pain becomes a constant companion. I live with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and chronic migraine.

For me, music is like an oasis in a desert of discomfort. It has always served as a soothing balm for my aching joints, in addition to being a source of happiness and inspiration.

Listening to music

Since I was a child, I have been into music. As a kid, I loved Michael Jackson, Aerosmith, and Paula Abdul.

In my “tween” years, when I was first diagnosed with arthritis, I loved 2Pac and also gravitated to the grunge and alternative bands of the ‘90s, like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, and Bush. These bands and the sentiment of the grunge scene seemed to echo what I was feeling as I received a diagnosis of juvenile arthritis.

In high school, I loved Britney Spears and NSYNC. Now, I mostly listen to rock music along with Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, and Harry Styles. However, Bush remains my favorite band to this day and I find myself traversing all over the country to see them perform.

These bands and the sentiment of the grunge scene seemed to echo what I was feeling as I received a diagnosis of juvenile arthritis.

There were times when I felt like music saved me. I looked up to so many of these artists and still do. The joy of looking forward to a new album or seeing them live became a light spot in the dark moments of navigating chronic conditions from such a young age.

Creating music

I’ve always loved dabbling with songwriting and playing music, too.

When I was a child, I would play my grandparents’ organ. I picked up saxophone in elementary school, and during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 decided to teach myself ukulele and piano. Since then, I’ve also taken up playing both electric and acoustic guitar.

But it isn’t always easy. There have been days where jamming on my guitar has left me in so much pain I’ve considered going to the emergency room or had to call off work. I don’t want to give up the guitar, so I ordered a smaller one as well as a left-handed one until I can find what works best for my changing mobility and dexterity.

I try to not let those concerns get to me, because music brings more joy than it does pain or fear.

I began writing song lyrics in 8th grade and still write lyrics and poetry at age 40.

In college, I initially set out to do marketing, PR, or artist management in the music business. I wanted to work in tour production or for MTV. Quickly, my health forced a temporary medical withdrawal and caused me to rethink my career path.

I don’t have many regrets, but one is not pursuing that journey. The other regret is quitting band in middle school because some boys teased me about my big saxophone case — and my limp.

These days, I try to focus on what I can still do versus what my chronic conditions have taken from me. The idea that I may be watching my hands lose function scares me. I want to keep working, writing, going to concerts, and making music.

I try to not let those concerns get to me because music brings more joy than it does pain or fear. I always try to have a concert lined up to look forward to, and I watch them from home when I can, such as Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour Film.

Maybe music is the way

Whether through guided music therapy sessions or personalized playlists, individuals with chronic conditions can explore music as a complementary tool to conventional medical interventions.

When you live with chronic conditions you make do however you can and keep hope alive when you’re able to. Despite my concerns and the challenges with my joints, I’m not ready to give up my love of music. For me, it’s medicine.

Medically reviewed on January 18, 2024

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About the author

Ashley Boynes Shuck

Ashley Boynes-Shuck is an author, advocate, and health coach based in Pittsburgh, PA. Despite living with RA for 25 years, and having other medical conditions too, Ashley has spoken to Congress, published three books, and even been tweeted by Oprah. She works for a tech startup, is a pet mom to three dogs, and enjoys birdwatching, concerts, playing instruments, and travel. In her free time she writes poetry and goes hiking with her American Ninja Warrior/schoolteacher husband Mike. Find her on her website, LinkedIn, or Instagram.

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