How Taylor Swift helps kids ‘cheat’ surgical pain

"Audio therapy is an exciting opportunity and should be considered by hospitals as an important strategy to minimize pain in children undergoing major surgery," says Santhanam Suresh. "This is inexpensive and doesn't have any side effects." (Credit: Moe Vivas/Flickr)

Children who listen to Taylor Swift, Rihanna, or other music of their own choosing experience less pain following major surgery, a new study suggests.

A strategy to control post-surgical pain without medication is important because opioid analgesics—most commonly used to control post-surgical pain—can cause breathing problems in children, so caregivers may limit the amount of opiods prescribed, and the pain is not well controlled.

Audio therapy

Children in the study, ages nine to 14, chose from a playlist of top music in different genres including pop, country, rock, and classical. They could also choose to listen to short audio books.

“Audio therapy is an exciting opportunity and should be considered by hospitals as an important strategy to minimize pain in children undergoing major surgery,” says Santhanam Suresh, professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “This is inexpensive and doesn’t have any side effects.”

Published in the journal Pediatric Surgery, the study is believed to be the first to evaluate and demonstrate the use of patient-preferred audio therapy as a promising strategy to control post-surgical pain in children.

Prior studies that looked at the effectiveness of music for pain during short medical procedures didn’t use objective measures of pain nor did they show whether the perception of pain was affected by the music itself or if an alternate audio therapy would be equally as effective.

The audio-therapy may help thwart a secondary pathway in the prefrontal cortex involved in the memory of pain, Suresh says.

“There is a certain amount of learning that goes on with pain. The idea is, if you don’t think about it, maybe you won’t experience it as much. We are trying to cheat the brain a little bit. We are trying to refocus mental channels on to something else.”

Letting patients choose what they listen to is an important part of the treatment, Suresh says. “Everyone relates to music, but people have different preferences.”


The therapy worked regardless of a patient’s initial pain score. “It didn’t matter whether their pain score was lower or higher when they were first exposed to the audio therapy,” Suresh says. “It worked for everyone and can also be used in patients who have had ambulatory surgery and are less likely to receive opiods at home.”

“One of the most rewarding aspects of the study was the ability for patients to continue their own audio therapy,” says first author Sunitha Suresh. “After the study, several patients ended up bringing in their iPods and listening to their own music. They hadn’t thought of it before.”

The equal effectiveness of the audiobooks was an unexpected finding, she says. “Some parents commented that their young kids listening to audio books would calm down and fall asleep. It was a soothing and distracting voice.”

In the study, about 60 pediatric patients received pain evaluations prior to and after receiving the audio therapy. They reported their pain levels based on identifying facial images such as a grimace or tears or a happy face to illustrate how they were feeling.

The children were divided into three groups; one heard 30 minutes of music of their choice, one heard 30 minutes of stories of their choice and one listened to 30 minutes of silence via noise-canceling headphones. The patients in the music and story groups had a significant reduction in pain. The patients who heard silence did not experience a change in pain.

Sunitha Suresh designed the study when she was a biomedical engineering student at Northwestern with a minor in music cognition. She is now now a fourth-year medical student at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

A Northwestern undergraduate research grant funded the study.

Source: Northwestern University