Music heals but doctors may not tune in

Surgery is stressful. Whether you are undergoing an out-patient procedure or something more serious requiring days recovery in the hospital, anxiety, stress, and worry all takes their toll on the body. Not only do they increase stress hormones but they also delay recovery and healing. Recent research, however, shows the very promising effects on pre-operative anxiety and post-operative pain relief that can be gained simply by listening to music.

Music has been an integral part of ceremonies, trance, rituals and healing since its conception. It’s hard to think of an event that does not include music of some kind. Sporting events, weddings, celebrations, and even funerals use music to accent the occasion. Perhaps the last bastion of silence is the surgical center. New research and results indicate that this may not be the case in the near future.

Music with surgery

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London found that the patients who had listened to music had been less anxious after their surgery and had needed less pain relief.

Their review, published in the journal, the Lancet, including randomized controlled trials of adult patients undergoing surgical procedures—but not those wherein the central nervous system, head, or neck were involved. They looked at studies where music was played before, during, and/or after surgery and compared those findings against standard care and scenarios wherein other non-drug interventions were used.

Musical outcomes

While music did not reduce length of hospital stay, according to patients it did markedly reduce postoperative pain, anxiety, and analgesia use, while increasing patient satisfaction. Moreover, and interestingly, it seems that “choice of music” and “timing of delivery” made little difference to outcomes.

According to researchers, “music could be offered as a way to help patients reduce pain and anxiety during the postoperative period. Timing and delivery can be adapted to individual clinical settings and medical teams.”

The BBC reported that The Department of Health said doctors should consider the findings. The scientists want hospitals to suggest in NHS information leaflets that patients bring music devices and playlists into hospital with them. A Department of Health spokesman said: “We hope doctors consider the findings closely, because we want patients to have the best experience and recovery possible when they undergo surgery.”

Sounds promising, but how the doctors feel about it is another thing entirely.

Music off-putting to surgeons

Although music in the surgical room has a positive effect on patients, the opposite may be true of surgeons and nurses. A study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing looked to observe the extent and the detail with which playing music can impact communication in the operating theatre. It seems that the level of music played during operations is currently in excess of levels deemed safe by the World Health Organizations (WHO).

To discern what “safe levels” of music are, researchers filmed 20 operations over a six-month period at two UK hospitals. And the results were not so good. The operating staff found that while music was playing they had to repeat themselves, and their requests, several times to be heard. This was especially frustrating when asking for surgical instruments, of which the need is often time sensitive.

Researchers concluded that “music played in the operating theatre can interfere with team communication, yet is seldom recognized as a potential safety hazard.”

A potential mid-ground

So here we have two studies looking at the effects of playing music from two different ends of the spectrum. First, we have a positive result for patients undergoing surgery when they listened to music before, during and after surgery. Second, we have a negative effect of music playing during surgery for the surgical staff and their ability to communicate properly. The Royal College of Surgeons told the BBC, if music is played during surgery, it “must not be distracting.”

Currently, it is the surgeons who decide whether or not music is played during a given surgery. And this should change. Patients and surgeons should discuss options. Also, it seems there was little difference if headphone were worn by patients, and so they could listen to music through headphones before, during and after surgery. The surgical staff could then control the music level during operation, if played at all.

It is important, though, to employ as many safe, inexpensive, non-invasive means as possible to help patients feel better. This means reducing stress, fear and anxiety before surgical procedures and also while in recovery. Music seems to fit the bill nicely. If more patients could discuss this with surgical staff prior to surgery, then perhaps it will one day be an option outlined in the pre-surgical material handed out to patients, and become the norm.



Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.