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August 18, 2016

Drexel study: Music can lessen anxiety, reduce pain in cancer patients

Drexel University-led research shows music therapy can improve the quality of cancer patients' lives

Illness Cancer
12122018_classical_music_Pexels Photo by Ylanite Koppens/from Pexels


Bob Marley famously sang, "one good thing about music is that when it hits you, you feel no pain." 

A Drexel University researcher is inclined to agree.

Joke Bradt, Ph.D., an associate professor in creative arts therapies and a board-certified music therapist, led a review of 52 trials — involving 3,731 participants — that concluded there is enough evidence suggest that music therapy treatments can help cancer patients ease anxiety, manage pain, reduce fatigue and improve their all-around quality of life. 

The results of the review by a team of researchers, released Monday, showed music had a "large pain-reducing effect," Bradt said. More than 500 participants in the studies reviewed reported less pain through music therapy. 

"If you are able to reduce anxiety, reduce pain and reduce fatigue, these things compound to have an impact on people's well being," said Bradt, in an interview Wednesday.

The review included results of studies on cancer patients who worked with music therapists and also how patients reacted to pre-recorded music offered by medical staff. Along with listening to music, Bradt said that often patients can be engaged creatively and make their own music as a form of therapy. Bradt noted drumming as a way patients can reduce stress.

With more than 50 trials to review, it was the largest study Bradt has participated in. 


Joke Bradt, Ph.D. is an associate professor in creative arts therapies at Drexel University.

"This is the biggest one we've been able to do, because there is so much research out there," she said. 

Patients undergoing cancer treatments, she said, can be at high risk for mental issues, due to elevated stress levels. While the disease itself causes stress, the life changes it can bring – at home and work – can be equally stressful.. 

Sometimes, she said, music can help patients open up and talk about these issues with a therapist or family member or help patients remember important times in their lives. 

"Music can do lots of wonderful stuff for us," said Bradt. 

Also, the review noted that music therapy "may lead to small reductions in heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure" in patients undergoing cancer treatment.

Does a certain type of music work best? 

No, said Bradt. While the term "music therapy" leads many to assume classical music, but its effectiveness dependts on a patient's musical tastes or the specific type of therapy. 

"People tend to think that it needs to be classical, but that's really not the case," she said. "It doesn't need to be soothing or classical music." 

Despite the encourage results of the review, Bradt said more work needs to be done. 

Some of the studies included in the review studied how music, coupled with spirituality, could impact cancer patients. Others looked at music as a way to help patients communicate their concerns over the disease to their families. 

But not enough study has been done on these fronts, she said, to make a final conclusion on the possible impact of music in these areas. 

"It could also reduce the need for anesthetics and decrease recovery time [following cancer treatment]. But, at this point, we just can't jump to any conclusions," she said. 

Bradt said she hopes the results help to show that music has a place in health care. 

"Sometimes, we just need to use it more purposefully, instead of letting it just be something in the background, like wallpaper," she said. 

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