Pain, Music, and Your Brain


By: Tina Davidson

I used to brag about how I never got sick and how I hadn’t been on antibiotics for over ten years. I should have known better–as the saying goes, “Pride goeth before the fall” (adapted from Proverbs 16:18).

About four months ago, over the course of a week, I desperately needed antibiotics to combat an infection. I’m not sure how I would have survived without antibiotics because the pain from the infection was so great. The first doctor I saw prescribed Amoxicillin. Unfortunately, this antibiotic couldn’t kick the infection, so four days later the next doctor prescribed the tenacious, Augmentin. This antibiotic combated the bad bacteria no problem and my pain was relieved. (Sadly, Augmentin probably killed off some of my good gut bacteria as well. I recommend the book, “Brain Maker,” by Dr. David Perlmutter on this topic)

My tale of woe began with a sore throat–the kind where I could barely swallow–and it lasted for a week. On the seventh day, with a little help from Vitamin I, aka ibuprofen, I thought I was on the mend. Then things got worse. That evening the pain in my head went from a level 1 (slightly-painful) to a level 10 (Old Faithful was gonna blow!). After a grueling night of no sleep and lots of prayer (2 Corinthians 12:9), I texted a friend in the morning and she urged me to see a doctor and offered to watch my children (I am forever in her debt!).  After my children were safely inside my friend’s house, I drove white-knuckled to the urgent care as the pressure in my head heightened like labor pains. It felt like my ear was trying to give birth to another ear.

Once in the waiting room I tried not to make eye contact with the other sufferers.  I handed the receptionist my insurance card and managed to choke out, “My head really hurts and I can no longer hear out of my left ear.” Despite her sympathy, she couldn’t change the estimated forty-five minute wait time.

I grabbed some tissue and writhed in a corner of the waiting room–doing my best to fill out the new patient form and not scare the other patients with my Gollum-like state. I wanted to pull out my hair and scream, “My precious!” (I recommend you watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy if you haven’t yet). I had lost something precious to me–my health! Luckily, I managed to not totally lose my mind and all my hair.

After what seemed like an eternity of corner writhing, I finally saw a doctor.  He diagnosed me with an upper respiratory infection and an ear infection in my left ear. I left with a prescription for antibiotics (Amoxicillin), some more Kleenex, and still lots of pain. Four days later the pressure in my head was hovering around level 9.5 (Calgon take me away!) and the fluid draining from my left ear had turned red (reminding me of the Nile in Exodus 7:14-25), so I made an appointment to see an ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist).

The ENT informed me that my left ear drum had ruptured and prescribed more antibiotics (hence, Augmentin).  She gave me ear drops to combat the infection from the outside and pills to combat it from the inside. I was told it would take 10 to 20 days for all the fluid to drain. A week later I couldn’t hear out of my left ear and continued to experience ringing. It has been over four months and my ear is still not 100% better. I lost weight, sleep, and part of my sanity during this trial but I gained a whole new appreciation for those who are sick and in pain.

Distraction from Pain

When my head pain hovered near the 6-8 level (on my personal pain scale), I tried reading as a distraction. Surprisingly, I found a brain health reference in a book I had least expected it–in a book about Zumba. The book mentioned a study that had used drumming to help Parkinson’s patients (Zumba is type of dance workout that is all about rhythm). Of course, I was immediately intrigued by this rhythm/brain connection. I made a mental note to investigate this idea further–when I was feeling better–so, here’s what I found out.

Music Therapy

I found a 2006 article in the Saturday Evening Post that mentioned the music therapy research of Dr. Ron Tintner, co-director of the Movement Disorders Clinic at the Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston. Prior research showed that rhythm makes people move, but he was specifically interested in finding out if certain rhythms helped Parkinson’s patients move better. (Anyone know what the results were after the trials? I can’t find any new publications/articles following up with Dr. Tintner on the matter.)

More recently, the American Physical Theraphy Association released information in 2013 that trials in Canada were using iPods as the next tool to help improve freezing of gait, the inability to continue walking or start walking, in Parkinson’s patients.

The system is called Ambulosono, and it uses an app called Gait Reminder in conjunction with motion sensing technology in an iPod Touch. The iPod is strapped to an arm or leg, and the app controls music, which plays or stops based on the quality and synchronization of the patient’s stride length, arm swing, and other factors. The system was featured in a YouTube video posted by the University of Calgary in May. States News Service
This sounds similar to the device Dr. Tintner was looking for:
“Over the course of a year, we want to determine which acoustic stimuli will help Parkinson’s patients move and function better. Ultimately, the goal would be to create a device, perhaps similar to a personal music device that would be tailored to each Parkinson’s patient’s needs,” he said.

Whether you have Parkinson’s or not, listening to and/or playing music can help contribute to your overall health and well-being. Studies have shown that music can influence babies as well as boomers according to a TEDx talk by Jessica Grahn, a cognitive neuroscientist.

If you are pregnant and are considering special womb headphones for your baby, the kind of headphones that you stick on your belly so your baby can listen to classical music, aka smart music, you should watch Jessica’s TEDx talk.  It is nice to see her debunk some of the hype around such gadgets.

Spoiler alert: Playing classical music to your baby in the womb isn’t going to increase your baby’s brain function. She recommends you save your money and buy some calming mp3s instead.

The most important bit of information that I took away from Jessica’s talk is that music can help reduce pain! I like the sound of that and I’m sure those suffering from pain do as well.

Here’s some other great benefits of listening to music:

  • Aids in stroke rehabilitation
  • Improves endurance and perceived exertion during exercise
  • Helps Parkinson patients with walking (as mentioned previously)
  • Helps dementia patients with memory recall

This list of benefits is sure to grow as scientists continue their research on the effects of music on the brain. I was especially intrigued by the article, “A Brain for Rhythm.”  This article talked about Grateful Dead drummer, Mickey Hart, and Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.  They are working together to try to crack the “rhythm code” in regards to how it can help with diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

“We’re going after the rhythm code,” Hart says. “If we crack it, we may be able to use that information to diagnose and treat these brain diseases. That’s the big enchilada!”

Hart’s mother has Alzheimer’s so I understand why this research is important to him.  I recommend reading the whole article.  There is fascinating stuff going on in brain research with brain rhythms.

The Big Enchilada of my Health Issues

The following quote sums up my health issues nicely:

The nervous system controls the function and regenerative process of every cell in the body–including the sinus cavity and channels.  If the nervous system is not in a state of coherence, this means energy is not flowing from brain to body and the cells of the sinuses are not regenerating. This may also have an effect on the eustachian tubes, leading to chronic ear infections and tinnitus (ringing in the ears).  Its not a drainage problem.  Its a nervous system out of balance. Yonge Finch Health Team

So, maybe I just need to get my nervous system back in balance. Perhaps you do too? I hope to continue to share tips for a healthy brain and continue to apply what I’ve learned to my own life.

You had me at “Neuroscience”

Are you especially drawn to reading an article if it uses the word “neuroscience”? I recommend you check out: “Superfluous Neuroscience Information Makes Explanations of Psychological Phenomena More Appealing.” I read about it on the blog Mindhacks.

Medical Disclaimer: All information on is the opinion of the author and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. Please contact your physician if you need medical attention and do not delay seeking professional assistance/treatment because of something you have read on this blog. The information posted here is for general knowledge and entertainment.

For more information on music therapy, check out the following resources:

Sources & Resources

FCR – Endonasal Therapy.

Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV).

Zumba: Ditch the Workout, Join the Party! the Zumba Weight Loss Program [With DVD] Perez, Beto ( Author ) ] { Hardcover } 2009.

Hearing Loss Tied to Brain Shrinkage.

“Parkinson’s Patients Sing in Tune with Creative Arts Therapy.” PR Newswire 14 June 2011. General Reference Center GOLD. Web. 9 May 2015.

 “Unique music therapy research is under way at the Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston.” Saturday Evening Post July-Aug. 2006: 51+. General Reference Center GOLD. Web. 9 May 2015.

“IPODS-THE NEXT TOOL IN PARKINSON DISEASE TREATMENT?” States News Service 17 Oct. 2013. General Reference Center GOLD. Web. 9 May 2015.

“Music Therapy: One Key for People with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s Disease.” Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter Feb. 2001: 3. General Reference Center GOLD. Web. 9 May 2015.

A Brain for Rhythm.

Freezing of Gait. Encyclopedia of Movement Disorders. Bloem, B.R., Delval, A., Mahabier, S.W., Snijders, A.H.2010, Pages 486–491.

Fernandez-Duque, D., Evans, J., Christian, C., & Hodges, S. (2015). Superfluous Neuroscience Information Makes Explanations of Psychological Phenomena More Appealing Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27 (5), 926-944 DOI: 10.1162/jocn_a_00750

Music and the Brain. TEDx talk by Jessica Grahn posted on Inside the Brain

Music, Rhythm, and the Brain.


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  1. Pingback: Books for Your Brain Health | Tina Davidson

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