Music as Medicine

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Rock ‘n’ roll tunes, lullabies and even the national anthem — music has the power to shape our mood, but now researchers are noting music may also make the perfect medicine.

Dr. Larry Picard, a neurologist at the Wasser Pain Management Centre at Mount Sinai Hospital, is one of several researchers in Toronto exploring how music can be used in health care.

Dr. Picard is wrapping up a pilot study at Mount Sinai, which is exploring how music may help sleep and hold relief for patients with fibromyalgia. Dr. Picard says fibromyalgia is a poorly understood disorder and once thought to be related to connective tissue, he believes it’s related to the central nervous system.

“The real source of the pain is in the nervous system rather than the parts of the body where pain is felt,” said Dr. Picard.  “This explains why many treatments have not worked. We need to treat the nervous system and not just where it hurts.

Dr. Picard and his team are looking at other ways to help these patients and they believe turning on an iPod at bedtime may be the answer. The research team suggests that sleep deprivation alongside pain could be creating a vicious cycle. Dr. Picard says when people are deprived of sleep they feel more pain and when they feel pain, often, they are kept from sleep.

Picard and the Wasser group have teamed up with Lee Bartel, the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music Associate Dean of Research, to dig into the workings of sleep and its connection to pain. Bartel has been creating music that can influence a person’s brainwave activity. His approach embeds slow rhythms in music that potentially influence rhythmic brain activity (“delta waves”) related to sleep.

Building on Bartel’s work, Dr. Picard has completed a study, which began in spring of 2012. Twenty fibromyalgia patients have listened to music at night for a month to see how it impacts their condition. The team asked these patients to fill out a questionnaire at the beginning and end of the study.

The study, not yet published, showed positive results on sleep, fibromyalgia symptoms and an overall positive response in the treated patients.  However, there was no measurable improvement in pain levels.  The researchers hope to expand on the study.

In addition to his research, Dr. Picard will be among several researchers working under the umbrella of the new University of Toronto Music and Health Research Collaboratory.