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The Opioid Epidemic and Music Therapy

Updated November 17, 2021
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The Opioid Epidemic and Music Therapy essay

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In a world where the opioid epidemic is claiming lives every day, music therapy should be at the front of the lines to stop the addiction before it happens and help rehabilitate those who suffer from its side effects. Opioid drugs are being prescribed as a quick fix for pain instead of putting in the time and effort to find the best way to care for patients. From a Biblical perspective, this is not bringing shalom to the health care system. God is a personal god and cares for his people individually. Therefore, Christians are called to also care for people with the same amount of individual attention. This kind of attention cannot be found in the careless way that painkillers are prescribed today.

Music therapy provides a way to better care for patients by offering a more sustainable method of pain management and relief. Because of their addictive nature and availability, what used to be a harmless painkiller is now a painful killer, claiming 115 lives in the United States every day (National Institute). This is what is now known as the Opioid Epidemic. Most frequently, opioid abusers become dependent on prescription medication. Because prescription medication is so readily available it is hard to monitor. This is why opioid drugs are so easily abused.

The drugs themselves are not the problem, but rather, the manner in which they are being distributed. Yet, hospitals and doctors continue to prescribe them, because there is no alternative being presented. With accessible music therapy, patients could manage their pain in a safer and more natural manner without running the risk of a deadly addiction. In recent years there has been a push towards more natural solutions to relieving pain such as Essential Oils, popularized exercising such a yoga, and meditation. Riding on its coattails could be a new movement for implementing music therapy for pain management as well. The culture is slowly shifting in favor of more natural remedies.

Perhaps something as tragic as the opioid epidemic was necessary in order to open the eyes of the public to a more sustainable approach to pain management. Music therapy does just that. If implemented correctly, it could unlock a new era of understanding and managing pain. Basic techniques used in music therapy have been circulating for years. For example, David would soothe Saul with his harp as it says in 1 Samuel 16:14-23, “Whenever the evil spirit from God bothered Saul, David would play his harp. Saul would relax and feel better, and the evil spirit would go away” (Contemporary English Version).

This was not just a way to distract Saul and calm him. In this technique, David is simply playing sweet music to Saul to calm his irritability, most likely lowering his blood pressure and steadying his heart beat. Whether they knew it or not, David was practicing music therapy on Saul, which proved to be quite successful. While the practice of music therapy is ancient, its research is not. Now is the time to invest in and research music therapy. In order to treat and manage pain well, one must first understand what pain really is.

The “Oxford Academic Music Therapy” Journal explains: Pain is a physical response to a physical stimulus. Yet, to the layperson pain is a negative, potentially destructive force whose only value is its effective warning when something biologically harmful is happening. To the sociologist, pain and the threat of pain are extremely powerful means for learning and for self or societal preservation. To the psychologist, pain is a perception, the translation of a physical stimulus into a perceived sensory experience and, like all perceptions, the perceived pain is highly subjective and modifiable according to the state of the person and the context in which the stimulus is encountered. (Brown 48) While it is a chemical reaction in the brain it is also largely based on one’s perception. Part of the perception of pain is informed by one’s cultural upbringing, “For instance, in Western cultures, childbirth is considered to be an extremely painful ordeal.

However, anthropologists have ob¬served women in non-western cultures who display virtually no signs of distress during childbirth and almost immediately return to their work in the fields after delivery” (Brown 48). Pain is also an extremely personal experience. Even with numerous studies and experiments, the outcomes of applied music therapy are not always consistent because of how heavily they depend on the individual.

The article “Music in the Control of Human Pain” explains the demand this unique situation presents: “Since no two individuals perceive and respond to pain in the same manner, no single intervention has yet been identified to be effective for all sufferers” (Brown 53). Pain is so individual that it requires individual attention. In the same way, music therapy and its effects are different for every person. Unlike painkillers, music therapy can be molded to fit the needs of the patient. With painkillers, the doctor can only adjust the type and dosage.

With music therapy, the patient is much more involved with their own pain management and healing process. This is important because it increases the patient’s expectation of the treatment. According to Helen Fosam Ph.D., a teacher at Middle Tennessee School of Anesthesia, “a positive emotional state and a positive expectation of pain relief can lower pain and enhance clinical effect of treatment”. It would be a shame not to take advantage of this unique quality of music therapy to treat individual’s pain. Painkillers are a broad, one-size-fits-all solution for a very specific problem. While they may temporarily aid the patient by subsiding their pain, opioids create worse problems in the long run.

Opioid drugs create more endorphins than the body naturally would. Endorphins are the chemical that is released in the brain which diminishes the person’s perception of pain. By diminishing the perception of pain, it also increases the person’s pleasure. An example of an activity that releases endorphins is exercising. While exercising the body produces endorphins to keep itself working hard without being stopped by the pain. However, with opioids, the amount of endorphins being released is so great that the body cannot compete with it. Over time, the body will stop producing endorphins naturally, making it dependent on the opiates to keep it chemically balanced (“Why Are Opioids”). It is easy to look at the present problem, a patient in pain, and want to immediately relieve them. But by rashly assigning prescription medication, they are being done a disservice.

Often the easiest course of action is not the best course of action for the patient. Music, more than any other stimulus, produces endorphins in the brain naturally. Because of this, music therapy could be used to rehabilitate opioid abusers. Patients will inevitably go through withdrawal when attempting to recover from an opioid addiction. With the help of music therapy, patients could learn how to cope with that pain by re-training their brains to produces endorphins naturally. In a way, music is addictive, but it is much more accessible and much safer than opioids (Karanam).

Music therapy is already successfully implemented in hospitals and counseling settings. In the hospital setting, it reduces stress, discomfort, reduces the frequency of seizures, nausea and increases awareness in comatose patients. For counseling settings, music therapy is used both in the background and as an interactive activity. Music being played as background noise can steady the client’s heart rate and reduce their anxiety. Using instruments and songwriting, clients can learn how to better express their emotions. This has proven to be most helpful in trauma cases where the client is hesitant to speak openly about the events. It even unlocks memories that have the client has blocked due to self-protection from the traumatic event.

While these are all excellent uses of music therapy, there is more that it could be utilized for. If music therapy is capable of doing these things amidst intense chronic and emotional pain, imagine what it could do if implemented before the situations became serious. In the future, music therapy could be used as a first response instead of a last effort to try and relieve a patient’s pain. With further research Music therapy has been shown to be a viable option for patients with a variety of diagnoses. It is an effective method for pain management and pain perception. Because of music’s inherent comforting and familiar nature, it can be used to provoke such responses in patients with anxiety and chronic pain. Rhythm can be used as a tool to lower heart rate, blood pressure, and reduce stress. The positive effects of music therapy are extensive and widely unexplored.

Further research must be conducted in order to unlock this tool’s full potential (Wigram). Music therapy is still a relatively young field of study and requires a depth of research that has not yet been conducted. Special attention must be given to the effects music therapy could have on the rehabilitation of opioid abusers. While it is known that music has a similar effect on the brain as opioid prescription drugs, there is little to no research on how to use this information (Karaman). At this point in time, there are only speculations about what this could mean for music therapy and rehabilitation. Until there are more studies conducted on the direct effects of acute music therapy sessions on opioid rehabilitation patients, there is little that can be done to move forward.

With more information about the effectiveness and application of music therapy, local hospitals and clinics could begin to implement music therapy to tackle the issue at its root. Music therapy must also be made a priority when evaluating how to treat patients with minor and chronic pain. At this point in time, prescribing a painkiller is the most convenient and time efficient solution to a patient’s pain. It is also a contributor to the opioid epidemic. Hospitals and clinics should be equipped to at least offer the option of a series of music therapy sessions to relieve pain along with milder painkillers.

Patients will not choose this option for themselves if it is not easily accessible and affordable. If the issue can be treated with music therapy, hospitals could eliminate giving out the gateway drug to more serious opioids. The most important step to spur on this music therapy movement is to educate the public about its possibilities. Professionals in the field should have the desire to educate the people they are trying to help. Raising awareness is always among the first steps of change. Without the public’s support, there could be little interest in this promising method for pain relief and rehabilitation. With the public’s support, the push for more extensive research would be heightened, and the demand for accessible music therapy would rise.

But the people must first know the reality of music therapy and its benefits. While music therapy holds much promise for the future of medicine, it does face some challenges. It is a relatively new field of study, and sometimes struggles to be recognized as a legitimate science much like psychology did not long ago. However, simply because it is a young science does not discredit the amazing discoveries that have been made so far. Still, some believe that music therapy does not actually work. This opposition is simple to refute when the facts are presented.

By looking at the way opioids interact with the brain, and then looking at how music therapy interacts with the brain, it is obvious that there is a strong similarity in the two. With the kind of similarity that the two interactions possess, it would be ridiculous to believe that music therapy does not have the capability of rehabilitating an opioid addict in this scenario. There are other ways in which music therapy has been proven to work, this is just one example. Another challenge is that music therapy can be expensive. This is why education is all the more important. With a more educated and aware public, the demand for accessible music therapy should rise. With further research and more trained professionals, music therapy could be made to be an affordable option for even the most fundamental pains. Last, but not least, music therapy seems to be unpredictable.

This argument is somewhat valid. Music therapy is highly subjective and individual to every patient. However, an asset about music therapy is that it is moldable to the individual’s needs. The real problem with all of these points is that they require more effort than most people are willing to put into a patient’s care. Music therapy requires more time for research and more time to assess what the patient actually needs. In reality, the opposition that music therapy faces is most frequently due to laziness. It seems like a waste to spend so much time assessing what a patient needs and what kind of therapy would best help them. But if the patient is avoiding an opioid addiction and receive the best care they possibly can, then it is not a waste in the slightest.

Looking at the opioid epidemic from a biblical perspective, the principal of Shalom comes into play. Shalom is often misused and mistranslated as simply “peace”. In the biblical context and original translation, it is much more than that. As the New International Version translates it, “Most fundamentally, shalom means reconciliation with God” (“The Meaning of Shalom”). Being reconciled with God is everything being restored to how it should be. God designed everything in a very specific way. Everything has a purpose and everything works together to display his glory.

When the universe acts in accordance with God’s will and design, it brings Him glory, and is, therefore, being reconciled to him and brought to shalom. This applies to all areas of life. In this case, what must be reconciled and brought to shalom is the way that people care for each other. How does God care for His children? The best way to understand how God cares for His people is to look at His character. First and foremost, God is a relational God. This is evident when looking at the Trinity. God is in relationship with himself and all three persons in the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The way that salvation is designed also points to God’s relational nature (Genesis 1: 26-27). He desires a relationship with those who come to Him, not perfect religion. Religion is a set of rules that must be followed. Religion is a one-size-fits-all method to God, but that is not how He operates. God heals people personally and individually. No one person’s story of salvation is like another’s. It is clear to see that God is a personal and relational God. In a similar way, His people should care for one another on an individual level. Loving a person well is willing what is best for them. In the medical field, there is no way to know what is best for a patient without first understanding their pain as something very unique and individual to them.

Music therapy allows for, and even requires this intimate level of understanding. By taking the time to understand the patient’s pain better, doctors and therapists will be better equipped to take care of their patients the way that God designed them to. This level of intimate care is impossible with the way opioids are being prescribed today. In conclusion, music therapy has the potential to bring shalom to the health care system by equipping caretakers to treat their patient’s pain with the amount of individuality that they deserve.

With this kind of intimate health care, patients will be better understood in their pain. With a deeper understanding of patient’s pain comes deeper and more meaningful healing. This kind of care and love can only be accomplished when caretakers see their patients the way that God sees His children. His children are worthy of individual attention and love. No patient is unworthy of the time and energy it takes to apply music therapy to their specific pain. This is especially important now when the opioid epidemic is at its peak. If applied, music therapy has the ability to prevent addictions, rehabilitate the suffering, all while putting the patients well being as a first priority.

Works Cited

  1. Brown, et al. “Music in the Control of Human Pain | Music Therapy | Oxford Academic.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 1 Jan. 1989.
  2. Bruscia, Kenneth E. Case Examples of Music Therapy for Event Trauma, Barcelona Publishers, ProQuest Ebook Central, 2012.
  3. Fosam, Helen. “The Influence of Cognitive Processes on Pain Perception.” Clinical Pain Advisor, 18 Nov. 2016.
  4. “Music Therapy and Music-Based Interventions in the Treatment and Management of Pain: Selected References and Key Findings.” American Music Therapy Association , 2010.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Opioid Overdose Crisis.” NIDA, 6 Mar. 2018. “The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment.” How Do Opioids Work in the Brain?, 2017.
  6. “The Meaning of Shalom in the Bible | Shalom | What Does Shalom Mean?” NIV Bible, 5 Oct. 2018.
  7. Karanam, Ketki. TedMed. “Personalizing the Therapeutic Effects of Music.” YouTube, YouTube, 10 Oct. 2017.
  8. “Why Are Opiates So Addictive?” Michael’s House Treatment Centers. Wigram, Tony, et al. The Art and Science of Music Therapy: a Handbook. Routledge, 2009.
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