• Robb G. Best

The Best Painkiller is Not What You Think it Is

When we say that listening to the right song makes us feel better, usually we mean it in terms of emotions. However, a new study from the University of Utah Health suggests that combining certain painkillers with certain music boosts the pain-fighting effect of the medication a measurable amount.

This recent bit of research was conducted specifically on models recreating two types of pain: inflammatory and post-surgical. (Nerve pain, or neuropathic pain, was not addressed.) Low doses of four medications were explored: ibuprofen, cannabidiol, levetiracetam, and NAX 5055. As for music, the researchers went with one artist only, while the control groups were given one of the four drugs and subjected to white noise.

What music would you choose for optimal painkilling effect? The experimenters went with Mozart. (Interestingly, the phrase “Mozart therapy” already exists, referring to the beneficial effect ol’ Amadeus can have on patients with epilepsy. For instance, a 2018 study of 45 children found that when the young patients were exposed to Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos in D major, their rate of epileptic discharges decreased significantly—even compared with other, non-Mozart music.)

Even those familiar with the outcome of “Mozart therapy” might have been surprised at just how dramatic the results were. The music-and-ibuprofen cocktail proved especially potent, reducing pain responses in the inflammatory model by 93%, as compared to ibuprofen alone. However, the other combinations had their advantages: pairing music with cannabidiol reduced swelling in the inflammatory pain model by 21%. Meanwhile, in the surgical pain model, just listening to music alone cut down on pain responses by 77%.

It’s possible that this approach will allow us to cut down on dosage levels where pain medications are concerned. This is great news. For one thing, in high doses, these drugs can cause adverse reactions, including toxicity. Just to speculate for a moment, given how sensitive elderly peoples’ systems are to painkillers, it could also be a huge step forward in elder pain management.

There are some definite shortcomings of this particular trial. For instance, it was conducted on mice only, and mice hear at different frequencies than we do, which could affect the results. (Although if you were worried that only the classiest of classical music buffs would show favorable pain-management reactions to Mozart, that doesn’t seem to be the case; mice aren’t renowned for their sophistication.) Certainly, further exploration is needed.

Still, the next time you’re recovering from inflammation or surgery, it’s worth a try. Take your meds, cue up a sonata, and let the healing begin.

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