A new study has identified a simple strategy that may aid recovery for patients who have undergone surgery: listening to music.

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Researchers found patients who listened to music before, during or after surgery experienced less pain and anxiety following the procedure.

Published in The Lancet, the study found that patients who listened to music before, during or after a surgical procedure experienced less pain and anxiety than patients who did not listen to music.

In recent months, Medical News Today have reported on a number of studies citing the potential benefits of music for the medical world. Earlier this month, for example, researchers found listening to music in the operating theater may improve surgeons’ ability to close wounds. But how does music help patients?

According to the authors of this latest study – led by Dr. Catharine Meads from Brunel University in the UK – music has been used to improve patients’ hospital experience for decades, with Florence Nightingale even adopting the practice.

The researchers note that previous studies have investigated how music influences pain relief and anxiety during postoperative care, and many have found positive outcomes.

However, these studies have not encouraged the use of music as a day-to-day intervention in surgical practice, likely “because information about effectiveness has not been synthesized and disseminated universally,” according to the authors. For example, studies have primarily focused on how music impacts patients’ recovery following specific types of surgery.

For their study, Dr. Meads and colleagues analyzed 72 randomized controlled trials involving almost 7,000 patients undergoing surgery. The trials assessed how music – played either before, during or after surgery – affected the postoperative recovery of patients.

Specifically, they looked at how music affected the pain and anxiety of patients following surgery, their need for pain medication and the length of their hospital stay.

Compared with patients who were not played music, those who were reported experiencing much less pain and anxiety following surgery, and they were also less likely to need pain medication. In addition, music appeared to increase patients’ overall satisfaction after surgery.

Music appeared to have no significant impact on patients’ length of hospital stay.

These results rang true regardless of whether patients were played music before, after or during surgery, though the effects were strongest among those who listened to music prior to surgery.

The researchers were surprised to find patients who were played music during surgery while they were under general anesthetic also reported reduced pain following the procedure, though the results were greater when the patient was conscious.

In addition, the team identified slightly greater – though “non-significant” – pain reduction and reduced use of pain relief after surgery if patients chose their own music to listen to.

Based on these findings, Dr. Meads told Medical News Today that music should be incorporated into therapeutic interventions for hospital patients, noting that “if it was a drug with this effect, it would be marketable.” She adds:

Music is a noninvasive, safe, cheap intervention that should be available to everyone undergoing surgery. Patients should be allowed to choose the type of music they would like to hear to maximize the benefit to their wellbeing.”

She notes, however, that music should not interfere with a medical team’s communication – a subject that was recently raised in another study reported by MNT.

Published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, the study revealed that in operating theaters where music was played, repeated requests were five times more likely to occur – something the researchers say could prolong the duration of a surgical procedure and lead to frustration among medical staff.

Still, Dr. Meads believes music could be an effective therapeutic strategy for helping patients recover from surgical procedures. She told MNT this may be down to the calming effect music has on us, or it could be because it provides us with a sense of familiarity if it is music we have selected ourselves.

Next, the team plans to investigate the pros and cons of introducing music to a surgical setting by testing the approach in a small number of mothers undergoing Cesarean section.