July 22, 2009
by Patty Donovan, citizen journalist
Although we strive to maintain health and avoid doctors and especially hospitals, bad things can and do happen. Sometimes it’s an accident; sometimes we come to a healthy life style too late and have incurred too much damage to completely recover. Now, music is taking a major role in helping critically ill patients recover. Imagine the role it could play in our lives when we aren’t critically ill!
Music Speeds Healing
As Victor Fabry slept in his hospital bed after open heart surgery, music gently filled his room. Immediately after surgery a live harpist played at his bedside, followed by the undulating strains of a Brazilian guitarist playing nearly nonstop from a CD player. His heart literally began beating in rhythm with guitarist Tomaz Lima. The music became medicine. “Very restful, very soothing,” said Fabry, 68, now almost two years removed from the surgery. “The mind influences your recovery. Anything that quiets your anxiety is powerful.'”
Science supports Mr. Fabry’s observations. Many hospitals, including such renowned names as Massachusetts General and the Mayo Clinic are treating patients with music and medicine simultaneously. This therapy is being applied with ICU patients, cancer patients and patients with brain disorders with astounding success. Even physicians admit there is more at work here than just a psychological high from the natural enjoyment of music.
Music weaves an intricate physiological dance with the body’s neurons and blood cells and this dance is now being intensely studied by various researchers. Their findings are being applied in more and more hospitals. Music therapy has actually been used for thousands of years. Today, scientists are just beginning to understand how it works. Dr. Claudius Conrad, a senior surgical resident at Harvard Medical School and a gifted pianist is about to launch a study of music’s impact on the sleep cycle of acutely ill hospitalized patients. It has already been shown that if certain slow pieces such as some of the works of Mozart are played, the listener’s heart will adapt to the beat of the music.
From Music Notes to Hormones
Musical tones follow an intricate highway from the head to the rest of the body. The trip begins with sound waves traveling through the air and landing in the middle ear where they cause the eardrums and bones in the middle ear to vibrate. The brain transforms the mechanical energy into electrical energy and then sends the electrical impulse to the “thinking” part of the brain, the cerebral cortex which controls thought, perception and memory. The cerebral cortex then sends the impulses to the response centers of the brain that control emotion, arousal, anxiety, pleasure and creativity. Then there is yet another stop: the hypothalamus, a small area deep in the brain that controls heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, body temperature and the nerves in the stomach and skin. The hypothalamus strives to maintain equilibrium throughout the body. Think about how certain songs will give you “butterflies” in your stomach or goose bumps on your arms. This entire trip through the brain happens in less than a heart beat, but the journey has just begun.
First, these electrical signals are converted to hormones in the brain. Dr. Conrad found that along with the need for fewer sedatives and the need to normalize blood pressure and heart rates, critically ill patients showed a 50% spike in growth hormone, produced in the pituitary gland, after listening to just one hour of Mozart piano sonatas. If patients or their families are unable to choose the music, Dr. Conrad often chooses Mozart for his critically ill patients. The various hormones then leave the brain and flow throughout the body via the bloodstream where they calm or stimulate various systems.
Classical music is the most common choice among doctors and therapists. The vibration of stringed instruments in particular is thought to intertwine with the energy of the heart, small intestine, and the thyroid and adrenal glands as shown by research at the Gagnon Cardiovascular Institute in New Jersey.
Hip Hop Healing?
Scientists are now wondering what effect other genres of music such as hip-hop, country, rock, etc will have on healing? Will you heal faster with Mozart or with The Back Street Boys?
“I recommend listening to joyful music as part of an overall prescription for maintaining good heart health,” said Dr. Michael Miller, director of the center for preventive cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Dr. Miller defines joyful as any music that brings on a natural high and maximizes the release of endorphins; the body’s own feel good chemicals. His research has shown that hearing your favorite song causes your blood vessels to dilate, hence increasing blood flow. He examined healthy volunteers as they listened to songs of their choice and discovered that the diameter of upper arm blood vessels increased by 26%. After listening to music which they hated however, these vessels narrowed by 6%. His research currently supports that any music the patient finds enjoyable will be healing regardless of genre.
Will Music Be A Prescription For Healing Brain Injury?
Some of this research involves deep brain stimulation while the patient is awake. “We’re in the infancy,” said Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the Center for Neurological Restoration at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic. During a surgery called deep brain stimulation, performed while patients with Parkinson’s disease are awake, Rezai and his team play classical compositions and measure the brain’s response to those notes. “We know music can calm, influence creativity and can energize. That’s great. But music’s role in recovering from disease is being ever more appreciated.”
This research at Cleveland Clinic during brain surgery is showing exactly how music stimulates neurons. Neurosurgeons collaborated with The Cleveland Orchestra to compose unique classical pieces which are then played for patients during brain surgery. Rezai then compares how neurons fire hearing this never before heard music vs. how they fire when hearing familiar music. He uses hair sized sensors placed in the brain which then translate the signals from the neurons to an amplifier. The study should be completed in three to 6 months.
When patients tell Rezai they find the music soothing, he is able to hear the changes in a single neuron. He is hoping this research will serve as the cornerstone for other studies of music’s potential in treating traumatic brain injury, depression, stroke and multiple sclerosis.
Will Oldest Turn Out To Be Best?
The oldest healing music is possibly still the most potent. Frescos painted around 4,000 B.C. depict harp-playing priests. Because of the unique properties of the harp, live harpists are being used today at such places as Gagnon, at the University of Rochester Medical Center and at least five other hospitals.
“This gentle but powerful instrument goes to the deepest places of the body that need to be healed,” said Tami Briggs, a pioneer in “harp therapy” who has played at the bedsides of hundreds of patients, including many at the Mayo Clinic. Ms. Briggs, while not a medical professional, has observed blood pressure decreasing and oxygenation increasing while she plays and watches the monitors. She has also noticed subtle signs of relaxation such as the patient sinking deeper into the bed.
What makes the harp so unique is that it is the only instrument that has 20 to 50 strings and is completely open, unlike other stringed instruments such as a violin or guitar. When a harpist strikes a chord, not only are the notes of the chord vibrating, but the strings above and below those plucked also vibrate. These vibrations appear to be absorbed by the body.
Music and Children with Cancer
At Texas Children’s Cancer Center a unique program has been developed to help patients and their siblings cope with cancer and its treatment. Here the children work with Anita Kruse and other professionals to write and record their own songs. This project is called “Purple Songs Can Fly”. The children are able to make CDs which they can share with family and friends. The songs are also recorded onto purple CDs and taken on flights with participating pilots, passengers and astronauts and returned to the child signed and with a complete flight record. Yes, the Purple Songs have even gone into space! Purple Songs Can Fly symbolically lifts the child, flying and soaring, above the obstacles of their illness and provides a tangible symbol of the hope for healing.
(Video of music and dance helping Parkinson’s patients)
(Video of Purple Songs)