The Healing Power of Music Therapy

It’s no secret that music spurs happy feelings. But did you know it can also contribute to your health? Just ask Chelsea Brown, the board-certified Music Therapy Program Coordinator at Dignity Health Mercy Hospital of Folsom. She spends her days connecting patients’ minds and bodies with carefully selected compositions to decrease anxiety and pain.

Understanding Music as Therapy

Although she laughs about being a therapist with a guitar, Brown’s offering an additional way for her patients to cope with being in the hospital without using extra needles, scans, or pills. Instead, music therapy is a nonpharmacological treatment of symptoms based on actively listening to and creating sounds to generate a desired physiological, cognitive, or emotional benefit through sensory stimulation.

“Music therapists use music really as a prescriptive treatment for specific goals. We are using music to really meet the needs of our patients,” she noted. Music unpacks layers of the subconscious and generates physical responses (such as blood pressure increases or decreases) that she monitors as she’s working with a patient, so she can customize her treatments for the greatest positive impacts. Becoming a music therapist requires a graduate or undergraduate degree in music therapy and completing 1,200 hours of clinical training through supervised practicums and internships.

You might find Brown handing a drum to a patient so he can tap along to a rhythm, or strumming her guitar and encouraging a patient to sing along to a popular tune. She plays specific types of music to encourage a therapeutic outcome such as increased relaxation, improved cognition, or a boost of energy.

Focusing on the Mind and Body

Most of Brown’s visits go beyond music to fully encompass her desire to connect the mind with the body. She likes to integrate guided imagery, body awareness, and autogenic relaxation techniques into her music therapy sessions to bring patients to a different plane and temporarily mute their awareness of the clinical setting.

“That’s where the healing happens: when you’re not thinking about all your tests and everything,” she said. “We are on the cutting edge of science as far as finding out just how much benefit comes from things like mediation or guided imagery. And there’s lots of research that’s been done showing their efficacy in managing chronic pain or cancer treatments.”

A Treatment for Everyone

Brown visits with all types of patients, ranging from those actively engaging in cancer treatments and recovering from surgery to those who are in a coma, experiencing dementia, or preparing for the end of life.

She says it’s also common to work with people who are on ventilators or women who are preparing for childbirth because those processes can cause bursts of anxiety. Really, everyone can benefit from the healing nature of music.

Brown has witnessed incredible results since piloting the program, which was funded by a grant from the Mercy Foundation. Her interventions have helped patients better manage their pain, boost their emotional wellness, reduce stress, and receive much-needed support during a challenging time.

“The goals of the music therapy program here at Folsom are to decrease pain, reduce anxiety and psychological suffering during their hospital stay, and increase patient satisfaction. I am really here to ameliorate the symptoms of their illness,” she elaborated.

A Success Story

Brown told me about a woman with stage 4 cancer who was experiencing pain from her cancer, in addition to a distended abdomen and a gastrointestinal bleed. At the start of their visit, the patient said her pain level was a 7 out of 10 and her anxiety nearly topped the chart at a 9 out of 10. She was experiencing concerns over her prognosis and her medical team’s recommendations to go on hospice care.

The two spent time talking and problem-solving her concerns and then engaged in listening to a recording of soothing sleep music and Chelsea provided instructions for relaxing using guided imagery. During the session, Chelsea was mindful of the tempo and type of music used so that she could encourage a relaxation response. After an hour-long session, the patient rated her pain a 4 and said her anxiety was gone. The therapy session was a success in helping this patient manage her symptoms and navigate the stress of her hospitalization.

Brown says music therapy is unique because it allows her to build relationships with her patients and therapeutically connect with them on a deeper level. It takes specialized training to know the best types of music to use and when to implement them. “I think it’s really time for our medical model to change to include these modalities because they’re as effective, or more effective sometimes, than drugs,” she said. “We’re not always trying to replace drugs, but it’s a great ancillary support.”