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Research Spotlight: Encouraging Preliminary Data Using Music Therapy for Chronic Pain

March 20, 2014

Millions of people suffer from chronic pain every year and, consequently, millions of people feel estranged from their social life, family, and physical body. “The body becomes the enemy so you try to get rid of the pain and almost get rid of your body,” associate professor in the creative arts therapies Joke Bradt, PhD, said. “People with chronic pain often see personal relationships destroyed because of their pain. The pain breaks down communication and leads to many misunderstandings and frustration. People often end up feeling lonely and isolated.”

Bradt had been working with chronic pain patients for many years, but had never done any research on music therapy’s effects on patients with chronic pain. With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Bradt has been conducting a two-year study involving eight-week group intervention trials where chronic pain patients from the Stephen and Sandra Sheller 11th Street Family Health Services Center meet for an hour per week and get access to music therapy sessions lead by Bradt.

“There are of course chronic pain support groups, but typically what happens is a lot of telling of their pain story, a lot of sharing sadness and frustration,” Bradt explained. “I so often hear patients say this [music therapy] is so different because we didn’t come together to complain, we came together to celebrate. Or we came together to have joy together and support each other.”

The randomized controlled trial has two groups of patients. The first group has access to the eight weeks of therapy sessions while the waitlist control group is measured without the treatment for the same outcomes. At the twelve week mark, the patients are brought in for a focus group for Bradt to better understand how they experienced the vocal music therapy treatment program and how it may have helped them. At that point, the waitlist control patients begin to receive their eight weeks of therapy.

A typical therapy session consists of humming, toning, chanting, vocal improvisations, and verbal processing. Through the music, the patients often feel moved to share their experiences, thoughts, and emotions. This can be followed by verbal reflections of group members or by spontaneous music making by the group to support the patient. Each week at the end of the session, one patient gets to share a song with the group that they find either inspirational or motivational to them. The group is invited to sing along and to reflect on the meaning of the song.

“My main focus is to help patients reconnect with their bodies in a positive way and to discover that their body can be a source of great joy, and that through their bodies they can connect with people in a meaningful way,” Bradt said.

Sessions typically start out in a more meditative and relaxed manner and work their way towards high energy mid-session. Bradt said she has a lot of fun in the sessions because the patients make beautiful music and it is amazing to see them find renewed hope and meaning through creativity. “A lot of patients will say this is the highlight of their week. A lot say it’s great to feel free like a kid again,” she said.

Based on preliminary analysis, Bradt has seen an increase in self-efficacy in the patients which she says is a very important outcome in chronic pain management. The data also suggests a reduction in pain intensity and an improvement in coping with pain. Currently, Bradt is analyzing the complete dataset. Current students in the PhD program in Creative Arts Therapies are involved in the coding of the qualitative data.

With this encouraging data, Bradt is planning to apply for additional grants to continue her research. Bradt also offers booster sessions once per month for patients involved in the study so that they can continue to benefit from music therapy. There are plans to hire a music therapist to work at the Stephen and Sandra Sheller 11th Street Family Health Services Center in the new Creative Arts Therapies wing.