Anxious surgical patients may no longer have to pop so many pills to quell their fears -- and their pain -- stemming from medical operations. Instead, doses of music before, during and after surgery could be just the trick to soothe nerves and reduce physical pain, new research shows.

Listening to music during surgery, regardless of the genre, timing or length, reduces a patient’s pain and anxiety, as well as the need for painkillers, researchers at Queen Mary University of London found in a review published Wednesday in The Lancet. Even when patients went under general anesthesia, playing tunes had a positive effect. The researchers analyzed data from nearly 7,000 patients undergoing a variety of operations to confirm the link between music and the reduction in pain and anxiety.

"Currently music is not used routinely during surgery to help patients in their postoperative recovery,” Dr. Catherine Meads, a University of London researcher who led the study, said, according to a press release. One reason is that doctors may doubt whether music will have any effect, she said, adding, “We hope this study will now shift misperceptions and highlight the positive impact music can have."

In the United States, 51.4 million surgical procedures were performed in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a lot of people who could benefit from the addition of music, especially given that anxiety and pain are common for patients both before and after surgery.



Belief in the healing power of music and numerous other positive effects is gaining momentum, driven in part by a growing body of scientific evidence. Studies have shown that music can shape moods and influence brain activity, to the extent that researchers speculate it could be beneficial in treating neurological disorders. The sheer abundance of journals and publications, organizations and associations, and even companies that combine music and medicine is a testament to this ever-widening field of study. 

The Boston-based Sync Project, for instance, is trying to determine whether music can actually serve as medicine. “There's some really good research out there indicating that music has the potential to bring about significant benefits in many health conditions, but not all the studies were well-designed,” Ketki Karanam, the co-founder and head of science innovation at the project, told the Atlantic in May. To fill that need, the project is trying to track, in an objective way, the effect that music can have on biological systems.

One study, from 2012, found that “carefully selected music” can improve the benefits of intense exercise. The right music can also have a “positive impact” on motivation and physical performance, increasing endurance, power, productivity and strength. “In this sense, music can be thought of as a type of legal performance-enhancing drug,” the researchers wrote.

The benefits of listening to music accumulate with findings from other studies, such as those showing that music can reduce stress, strengthen immune systems and improve babies’ sleeping and eating habits. “We've found compelling evidence that musical interventions can play a health care role in settings ranging from operating rooms to family clinics," psychologist Daniel Levitin, author of the book "This Is Your Brain On Music," has said.

For the team that just published findings on the impact of music in a surgical setting, the next step is to conduct tests in real life. The Royal London Hospital is expected to introduce music in two operative settings, allowing patients to select music to be played through a pillow with built-in speakers during surgery, according to a press release.