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A condition that affects more than 10%¹ of the global population (an estimated three times more women than men), migraine headaches have become a prominent topic in research. Scientists not only continue to search for a cure for the primary headache disorder but also for treatments that may provide relief for the many people for whom existing migraine treatments aren’t working.
Although migraine-specific drugs and general pain relievers are effective in helping many people manage their migraines, researchers are investigating the concept of migraine music therapy and its potential role in alleviating migraine attack symptoms — and studies² indicate it may be worth a try, although more research is needed.
Music therapy is a type of audio therapy. Audio therapy uses various audio types, such as sounds, music, or spoken words, to potentially improve a person’s health or wellness.
The first known reference to music therapy appeared in 1789³, so while it’s not a new concept, music therapy is gaining attention for its possible benefits as a therapy for migraines.
We don’t fully understand why music produces therapeutic responses in some people, Still, research⁴ on the connections between music and the brain indicates that music can lessen pain, reduce stress hormones, reduce activity in parts of the nervous system linked to stress, and influence activity in certain parts of the brain that may be involved in migraines⁵.
Reflexive brainstem responses may also play a role. For example, there’s evidence that relaxing music reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
A protein called interleukin-6⁶ (IL-6), which contributes to the body’s defense against illness or injury, increases in migraine patients during an attack. Listening to relaxing music is associated with lower levels of IL-6. This is another possible factor in music therapy’s effectiveness in pain management.
Pain reduction linked to music is a well-researched topic. One literature review⁷ reports that up to 70% of patients with various ailments found that their pain was reduced by at least half through music.
A study⁸ of more than 150 migraine patients indicates that music may help with acute migraines by:
Compared to the group who only received migraine medicine, the people who supplemented their treatment with music were more likely to experience a reduction in pain severity after 30 minutes. Severity was reduced in 84% of people in the music therapy group compared to 73% in the medication-only group.
Further, of the 13 patients who needed additional medication during the study because of high pain ratings, only three came from the music and medication group.
Compared to the medicine-only group, people in the music and medicine group were more likely to experience symptoms for a shorter time. 100% saw improvement within two hours, compared to 94% in the medication-only group.
Participants were discharged from the study when their symptoms subsided. At the two-hour mark, 13 participants felt well enough to leave. Of those, 11 belonged to the music and medication group.
To ensure consistent results, you should see a music therapist. While listening to your favorite music can certainly be relaxing, simply listening to music in your free time is not necessarily an effective therapy for migraine headaches.
Notably, the sound is a migraine trigger for some people, and migraines are often accompanied by increased sensitivity to noise. So if you’re just listening to music at home to combat your migraine, you may actually make it worse. Additionally, pressure from non-specialized headphones can be uncomfortable when you have a migraine.
If formal music therapy isn’t accessible or convenient for you, there are science-backed at-home options that may prove more effective than simply listening to your go-to playlist. In a study following participants using the Music Care app over a three-month period, researchers found a reduction in the frequency of migraine attacks and medication use.
The music that works for one person may not work for another, and more research is needed to understand the relationships between music and migraines. Types of music you could consider are:
Binaural beat technology (BBT) is the practice of sending two slightly different frequencies through the right and left ear, although the brain perceives them as one. While there isn't a current study to support BBT for migraine treatment specifically, BBT's benefits in mood, anxiety and sleep quality could make a difference in patients suffering from migraines.
According to the National Headache Institute⁹, classical music has a soothing effect — reducing anxiety and stress, which may relieve muscle tension and improve migraine symptoms. In their study¹⁰ of Indian classical music for migraine relief, one team of researchers found that participants in the music group had less severe, less frequent migraines.
White noise encompasses a wide array of “background” sound frequencies. While it's true that migraine sufferers are often more sensitive to everyday sounds, white noise may help with migraines and pain relief.
According to the National Headache Institute¹¹, unpredictable and uncontrollable noises from the street or in your office may cause you to stress, but noises from your fan or the rain falling on a window can help by distracting you from the pain of chronic headaches.
It’s worth noting that while many people may gravitate toward melodic or instrumental music for migraines, there’s evidence that heavier, more intense types of music might be beneficial for migraine sufferers who enjoy them.
According to the Migraine Relief Center¹², music-induced analgesia (the regulation of emotions, resulting in pain reduction) is practiced among migraine patients who know what they like, with some of the more popular musical choices including dubstep, heavy metal, and electronic dance music.
Potential benefits and health outcomes of music therapy include:
Reduced muscle tension
Decrease in negative thoughts
Lower stress-related blood pressure response
Better quality sleep
Shorter migraine attack duration
Reduction in migraine frequency
As discussed in this article, several studies have assessed the effects of music on migraines, but more research is needed to draw conclusions.
Research on music for pain control, stress relief, and selective brain activation may provide direction for future research on the connections between music therapy and migraines.
Since music therapy is a minimally invasive intervention, it may be worth trying if you struggle to manage your migraine symptoms. If you’re interested in music therapy, consult a qualified music therapist.
Researchers have not yet identified any certain risks associated with music therapy. However, more research is needed.
In a University of Dayton publication¹³, a team of music therapists warned of two potential risks:
Chronic migraine patients should work with a music therapist to ensure their treatment is safe and suitable.
It’s not uncommon for the intensity of a migraine to get severe for many patients. The impact of migraines on one's quality of life can sometimes be detrimental, even causing functional impairment. While many effective management options are available today to help reduce pain and other symptoms, not every treatment plan works for every person.
For this reason, sound and music therapy have become another important topic of discussion in recent studies.
According to the limited available research, however, migraine patients may benefit from less anxiety, stress, migraine attacks and frequency, mood swings, pain, and more. On the other hand, there is a small risk of overstimulation and confusion.
Although more research is required to uncover the effectiveness of music therapy and more conclusive benefits of music intervention in individuals diagnosed with migraine headaches, there is evidence that it can be beneficial for some patients. As always, consult your doctor to discuss migraine music therapy and whether it may be right for you.
What is migraine? (2022)
History of music therapy | American Music Therapy Association
Music for pain relief (2006)
The “sound” of music: Positive & negative effects on headaches | National Headache Institute
Does sound therapy actually help relieve migraines? | National Headache Institute
Have a migraine? Try listening to dubstep and heavy metal | The Migraine Relief Center
Music therapy and its role in pain control | InTechOpen
A career in music therapy | American Music Therapy Association