Tuning In to Music May Ease Kids' Post-Op Pain, Study Finds

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TUESDAY, Jan. 13, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Going through a surgery often means post-operative pain for children, but listening to their favorite music might help ease their discomfort, a new study finds.

One expert wasn't surprised by the finding.

"It is well known that distraction is a powerful force in easing pain, and music certainly provides an excellent distraction," said Dr. Ron Marino, associate chair of pediatrics at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y.

Finding new ways to ease children's pain after surgery is important. Powerful opioid (narcotic) painkillers are widely used to control pain after surgery, but can cause breathing problems in children, experts warn.

Because of this risk, doctors typically limit the amount of narcotics given to children after surgery, which means that their pain is sometimes not well controlled.

The new study was led by Dr. Santhanam Suresh, a professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics at Northwestern University. It involved 60 children, aged 9 to 14, who were all dealing with post-surgical pain as patients at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.

The researchers let the young patients choose from a list of pop, country, classical or rock music and short audio stories. The study used standard, objective measurements of pain to gauge any effect.

Giving kids the choice of whatever music or story they wanted to listen to was key, Suresh said. "Everyone relates to music, but people have different preferences," he said in a university news release.

The study found that listening to the music or stories for 30 minutes helped distract the children from their pain.

Distraction does offer real pain relief, Suresh said.

"There is a certain amount of learning that goes on with pain," he explained. "The idea is, if you don't think about it, maybe you won't experience it as much. We are trying to cheat the brain a little bit. We are trying to refocus mental channels on to something else," Suresh said.

"Audio therapy is an exciting opportunity and should be considered by hospitals as an important strategy to minimize pain in children undergoing major surgery," he added. And unlike drug therapy, "this is inexpensive and doesn't have any side effects," he said.

The audiobooks were also effective, the researchers found. Sunitha Suresh, Dr. Suresh's daughter, was a co-author for the study. She said that "some parents commented that their young kids listening to audiobooks would calm down and fall asleep. It was a soothing and distracting voice."

She was a biomedical engineering student at Northwestern when the study was conducted, and is now studying medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore.

Another expert in caring for children's pain applauded the study.

AnnMarie DiFrancesca is director of the Child Life and Creative Art Therapies program at Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park.

She said that "empowering children with tools that will enable them to cope successfully can often change a negative experience into a positive one -- one which leaves the child feeling confident in their abilities to endure their procedures and treatments."

DiFrancesca said that her own center often uses "a variety of distraction and non-pharmacologic pain management techniques, some of which include music, art and video gaming."

And, DiFrancesca added, "We have seen firsthand how these familiar, safe items help to ease a child's fears and give them a sense of control over sometimes a seemingly uncontrollable situation."

The study was published in the January issue of the journal Pediatric Surgery International.

More information

There's more on preparing kids for certain surgeries at the American Heart Association.