NIH Taps Drexel to Help Expand the Study of Music and Music-Based Interventions for Pain

Close up image of a person playing guitar

As part of a $2.3 million National Institutes of Health project to broaden the understanding and use of music-based interventions for pain management, Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions will lead the creation of a multidisciplinary research network, called the Music4Pain Network, to explore the mechanisms that make these interventions effective.

According to the National Institutes of Health, chronic pain affects approximately 43% of the United States population, it is the leading cause of disability in the U.S., and nearly half a trillion dollars is spent treating it each year. Music-based interventions, including music therapy, have emerged in recent years as an effective, and affordable, non-pharmacological approach to pain management. While the NIH has been exploring the wellness benefits of music since 2017, a growing preponderance of evidence of its effectiveness has encouraged the agency to begin laying the foundation for more widespread use of music-based intervention in clinical settings.

With the support from the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, over the next five years, Drexel will assemble a group of scientists, clinicians and musicians whose expertise spans music therapy, musical pleasure and reward, pain management, pain perception, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral medicine, rehabilitation psychology, and neuropsychology with the goal of building foundational knowledge about music-based interventions for pain treatment.

“Chronic pain is one of the most common and costly health problems facing our society today,” said Joke Bradt, PhD, a professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions and director of its PhD program in Creative Arts Therapies, who is leading Drexel’s participation in the NIH effort. “We know that music-based interventions are an effective treatment for pain, yet our understanding of how music helps to reduce pain is still quite limited. A better understanding of what underlies music’s pain-reducing effects is crucial to help maximize the therapeutic potential of music-based interventions.”

The challenge exists, Bradt suggests, because most research to date has mainly focused on whether or not interventions are effective. Bradt has led much of this research herself, looking at the effects of music therapy for people with chronic pain and people with cancer.

But now that there is substantial evidence to support music as a treatment for pain, research must shift to look at the mechanisms that make it an effective therapy. In addition, experts need to standardize terminology around music-based interventions and provide health care providers with a better understanding of when music therapy will be an effective treatment.

The Music4Pain Network will focus on bringing researchers from different fields together to advance understanding of underlying mechanisms related to music and pain as well as identify for which patients it would be an effective treatment.

To do it, Bradt along with partners at the University of Washington, the University of Virginia, the University of California Irvine, Indiana University, and McGill University in Canada, working closely with collaborators at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, will set a formal research agenda, build a network of researchers, create a visiting scholar program for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows, mentor and support early career investigators, and fund a series of one-year pilot grants over the next five years that will allow researchers to take a multidisciplinary approach to answering these questions.

“Researching how music influences pain perception and pain management is very complex, not the least because music itself is a complex phenomenon. In addition, people may have very different histories with and responses to music. Add to this the fact that individual responses to pain may vary greatly,” Bradt said. “We’re asking researchers to look at these complexities together — so it’s certainly an endeavor that will require knowledge from a wide range of disciplines. Our goal is to build a broad network, so that researchers have the capacity to approach these big questions with the rigor, scope and expertise to glean information that will facilitate the development of new, or optimization of existing, music-based interventions so that acute and chronic pain can be better managed. We are convinced that improved efficacy of music-based interventions and better understanding of their mechanisms of action will speed up their adoption in clinical care. This could have important consequences for the millions of people currently living with pain.”

The network will begin public outreach and recruitment activities starting at a music-based intervention workshop hosted by the NCCIH in December.