For centuries, humans have explored and espoused the therapeutic benefits of music. From dental work, to acupuncture sessions, to IVF egg collections, the use of music is now routinely encouraged. It promotes relaxation and assists patients in managing stress during medical procedures. Similarly women are often encouraged to play their favourite music during labour and birth. But beyond promoting relaxation, can listening to music actually reduce the pain of labour? A recent study conducted with a group of Taiwanese first-time mothers suggests it can.
This empirical study included 60 participants, split evenly between an experimental group and control group. Participants in the experimental group where offered a choice of a number of different music styles. All the music available had a slow tempo and a medium to low pitch. The music had a low volume and a rhythmical, simple and steady melody. The control group were unaware of the option of music. Both groups received routine care with periodic review of their pain and anxiety levels.
Within the experimental group, the use of music was shown to significantly reduce pain and anxiety. It effectively induced relaxation, during the latent phase of labour. However, scores for pain perception and anxiety variables during the active phase did not significantly differ between the experimental and control groups.
How music helps
According to Gate Control Therapy, the auditory stimulus of music triggers impulses in the brain. This overrides the pain signals carried by smaller nerve fibres. This is the same effect by immersing in water during labour. Here the stimulus of water of skin overrides those same pain signals. In addition music, which is perceived by the right brain, appears to stimulate the pituitary gland to release endorphins for decreasing pain, as well as improving mood, increasing relaxation, reducing anxiety, and assisting control and distraction.
One explanation for the lack of consensus between the finding in the latent and active phases of labour is the possibility that the type of music collections offered in the study, did not synchronise with the short and rapid rhythmic breathing observed in the active phase. It may be that music with a more rapid tempo may be more effective in the active phase, as has been demonstrated in earlier studies.
The findings of this study support the value of offering music to women during the latent phase of labour to assist in reducing pain levels and lessening anxiety. Music lacks the harmful side-effects of pharmaceutical pain relief measures, and is simple to administer and control making it a relative simple practice to support in hospital settings. The types of music which may best benefit women in the active phase of labour also warrant further exploration.
Source: Effects of music therapy on labour pain and anxiety in Taiwanese first-time mothers Yu-Hsiang Liu, Mei-Yueh Chang and Chung-Hey Chen, Journal of Clinical Nursing, 19, 1065–1072, 2010