Can Music Therapy Help People With Rare Genetic Conditions?

It’s possible that music therapy can help people struggling to manage rare genetic conditions.

Image courtesy of The Loop.

Managing genetic conditions in your children can be an extremely difficult and scary path. Genetic mutations can cause a host of developmental and health problems-- affecting people’s coordination and motor skills or ability to communicate, or resulting in repeated medical episodes, like seizures.

Obviously, people with rare, severe genetic conditions often struggle to manage their health, and they deserve resources to help them in that process. The parents of children with genetic disorders are also often put under a lot of stress as they try to learn more about their child’s condition and needs and change their lifestyles to accommodate that.

With so many stressors stemming from genetic disorder-related health concerns, many struggling families are more than relieved when they find a way of better managing their loved ones’ conditions. Genetic conditions don’t have a cure, per se-- once developed, they are there to stay-- so anything that can make parents and patients’ lives a little bit easier is worth holding onto.

So-- how does music therapy play into all this? There’s a possibility that music therapy can be of benefit to people with rare genetic conditions-- although research on the subject is ongoing. Based on what we do know, though, what are the ways in which music therapy might help those with genetic conditions?

What is Considered a Genetic Condition?

A gray double helix on a blue background
Genetic conditions are extremely varied in symptoms and severity. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

A genetic condition or disorder is defined as any health problem that stems from a mutation in someone’s genes. These mutations can occur before birth or develop after birth. They can also be caused by abnormalities in someone’s chromosomes. Not all genetic mutations result in genetic disorders, and many mutations don’t actually affect a person’s health at all-- such as color blindness, for example.

Genetic conditions vary greatly in severity and effects. For instance, autism has a variety of possible causes-- one of which is genetics. Most of us know that the autism spectrum is very wide, and while the condition can be severe, it can also be milder and more manageable for people growing up with it. Diabetes is also a genetic condition-- one that can develop during a person’s life. While diabetes does require careful management, people living with it are usually able to handle the condition themselves. Genetic conditions come with their challenges, but they don’t always prevent people from living their own lives.

Other genetic conditions, though, can cause a lot of health and developmental problems. Those with Down Syndrome frequently also develop heart conditions, for example. Many conditions, such as Rett Syndrome, can negatively impact people’s ability to communicate or move on their own.

So-- we know that genetic conditions vary a lot in terms of type, severity, and health implications. How can music therapy help people living with these conditions?

Music Therapy Helping with Mood, Mobility, and Speech

A therapist helps a man walk using rails
Music therapy has been proven to help with mood regulation, and has positive effects on physical and speech rehab patients. Image courtesy of Fisio.

Research has strongly suggested that music therapy can have a positive impact on many aspects of people’s health and well-being. Music stimulates several parts of your brain, including the centers associated with emotion, memory, movement, and speech.

We all know that music can have a huge impact on our moods-- most people have turned to music after a bad day in an effort to make themselves feel better. That’s no coincidence. At the same time that music stimulates the part of your brain associated with emotion, it helps suppress the amygdala-- the part of your brain that is responsible for your negative emotions. As such, music is great for helping people regulate their emotions.

As for how music therapy helps with movement and speech, that has a lot to do with how memory works in our brains, too. People have an impulse to move along to music when they hear it because it stimulates the cerebellum, the center for movement in the brain. People also have a tendency to imitate sounds they hear-- this is why we often end up humming along to music. For patients who struggle to walk, move, or speak, listening to music often gets them moving or singing, in spite of the obstacles that hold them back. By channeling their natural impulse to move along to the beat of a song or sing into a specific goal, patients are able to use music to make specific movements or vocal sounds part of their muscle memory-- thereby slowly redeveloping the ability to speak, move, or even walk.

Music Therapy and Genetic Conditions

A group of people sitting in a circle with handheld instruments, while one man dances in the center
The benefits of music therapy may apply to those with rare or severe genetic conditions as well. Image courtesy of Health Cautions.

Now that we have an idea of how music therapy can impact people’s well-being, we can get a better understanding of how it may also be beneficial to people with genetic conditions. Lots of genetic conditions negatively affect people’s communication and motor skills. For those with severe conditions that impede their ability to communicate, music therapy has successfully been used to help them express themselves vocally. Even if a person is unable to or struggles to speak, he or she will often still sing along to music-- a vocal response that parents of children with severe conditions find extremely encouraging.

Music therapy may be able to help people whose genetic conditions impede their ability to move or walk, too-- similarly to how it helps people in physical rehabilitation. Listening to music and clapping or walking in time with it-- with or without help-- can help ingrain those movements into patients’ muscle memory, even if it doesn’t always result in being able to walk perfectly. Again, for those whose conditions are extremely severe, nodding or clapping with music is a promising physical response.

Although music therapy has plenty of potential benefits to those with severe, rare genetic conditions, it’s important to note that research into those benefits is still ongoing. In several cases, music therapy has had a positive effect on families’ attempts to manage a genetic condition-- but promising as those cases are, there are few, if any, complete studies on the subject.

As for those with milder conditions, or those who are affected by the stresses of trying to meet the medical needs of a loved one with a severe genetic condition, music therapy can still offer plenty of benefits. As we’ve mentioned, music is a great way to regulate and manage moods. It’s been shown to help alleviate symptoms of depression and manage anxiety and stress-- and, even in cases where it doesn’t necessarily uplift someone’s mood, there are no negative effects associated with it. Analyzing song lyrics or writing your own can be a great way to express your emotions or just feel understood-- both of which can have a hugely positive impact on your mental health.

Music Therapy Research Ongoing

A woman with a guitar singing with a man on a hospital bed
Research on how music therapy impacts those with rare or severe genetic conditions continues. Image courtesy of The Epoch Times.

Music therapy has already been shown to have a wide variety of benefits to people on all walks of life-- from regulating moods to helping with physical and speech rehabilitation. There’s a high probability that those same benefits can be extended to those living with mild or severe genetic conditions. To what extent, it’s difficult to say at the moment. But research on the topic is always continuing, and as more information comes to light, the more music therapy cements its place in the medical field as a supplementary treatment for patients and families of all types.

Skyler Watkins
Skyler Watkins is an aspiring author and editor located in Columbus, Ohio.
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