While music has been known to have a way of lifting the mood, it could likewise improve the well-being of those affected by cancer, according to a new study from a team at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

The new study published in the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies found that music therapy can be used to combat pain and anxiety in patients affected with cancer and sickle cell disease throughout their treatment. In addition, they also found that sickle cell patients experienced more pain and anxiety at baseline than patients with cancer.

Previous trials have proven music interventions to be clinically safe and effective in addressing acute pain and improving the quality of life of patients suffering from cancer and hematologic diseases. However, the research team aimed to explore the clinical delivery and effectiveness of music therapy at UH Seidman Cancer Center and at the same time, compare the impact of music therapy on pain, anxiety, and fatigue among adult patients with cancer and sickle cell disease. 

For the study, the researchers looked at data involving participants who were 18 years and older with both hematologic and/or oncologic conditions (HemOnc) and were undergoing care at the UH Seidman Cancer Center between 2017 and 2020. Music therapists supplied 4,002 sessions to a total of 1,152 adults across over 2,400 encounters. Notably, though, this is the largest-ever study exploring the effectiveness of music therapy within hematology and oncology on over 1152 patients to date. 

Coping, managing pain, and lowering anxiety were the music therapist’s main goals for each session. And the music interventions provided included active music-making, songwriting, and music-assisted relaxation. Pain, anxiety, and fatigue that were self-reported by the patients were assessed by the music therapists with the help of a 0 to 10 scale at the start and end of every session conducted. The data collected were all gathered and documented in the electronic health record.

This study points to the major burden sickle cell patients experience and how a single session of music therapy could serve as an effective therapy to help alleviate their pain and anxiety. 

For the music therapy interventions (which held for an average duration of 31 minutes), music therapists employed the use of 40 percent music listening (live or recorded), 33 percent active music making, and 13.9 percent songwriting—with the number being significantly higher in the sickle cell disease group than the HemOnc group.

Patients in the sickle cell disease group reported having significantly higher pain and anxiety before the music session when compared to patients with hematologic and/or oncologic conditions. 

Meanwhile, when in combination (i.e. SCD & HemOnc), the researchers observed a significant reduction in pain, anxiety, and fatigue with the changes in anxiety and pain being most clinically significant.

As expected, the researchers found that the participants had positive things to say concerning the therapy including that it improved their mood and pain, and reduced stress/anxiety. Many also reported enjoying it, saw the need for it, and expressed gratitude.

“It helps me release the everyday pressure and stress that is going on,” said one of the patients featured in the study’s qualitative analysis. “I’ve had a lot of hard times, but this really gives me courage. You gave me a way to articulate my feelings.”

The study authors believe these positive responses from patients stress the importance of music therapists’ expertise in addressing patients’ needs.

Moreover, the researchers suggest one major factor that may have added to the patient’s reported pain relief is the music therapist’s use of the participant’s most preferred music. This is because patient preference has been found to play a huge role in pain intensity and pain tolerance.

According to the study authors, their findings suggest that actively engaging patients in the musical process while boosting therapeutic relationships with them is crucial in helping patients to express their thoughts and feelings along with coping with prolonged series of treatments rendered in the cancer center.

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