How Music is Helping Cancer Patients Combat Nausea

Research shows that music therapy can help alleviate the side effects of cancer treatments.

Many of us know how difficult it can be to deal with cancer. Whether you’re watching a loved one suffer through rounds of chemotherapy or experiencing the devastating effects of cancer treatment yourself, it’s not easy.

However, as cancer treatments evolve, so do methods of managing their side effects-- providing a breath of fresh air for many struggling patients. Music therapy is among these methods-- it’s one of the easiest and most subtle ways that cancer patients can combat chemotherapy-induced nausea.

But how does it work? How can music therapy help combat physical symptoms like nausea? And what are its other benefits to cancer patients? To answer these questions, we’ll break down how music reaches the brain, how it impacts and stimulates different parts of the brain, and how stimulating those parts of the brain can affect someone’s health.

Music in the Ear

A man and a woman listen to music through earbuds
Music reaches the brain through a series of mechanisms in the ear. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

It’s understandable to be confused as to how music-- an external, non-physical thing-- can impact symptoms of physical illness. Even if it’s possible to feel particularly connected to a song-- so much that it feels like you’ve internalized it-- the actual music is on the outside of your body and shouldn’t really affect your health, right?

In order to figure out how music therapy can actually impact your physical well-being, first we have to understand how music reaches the brain from its source.

Music-- and all sound-- travels as energy through the air in waves called soundwaves. Your ear is shaped a lot like a funnel, allowing it to catch a variety of soundwaves traveling through the air and concentrate those waves so that they can reach your eardrum. Your eardrum vibrates when soundwaves reach it.

Those vibrations move the air inside your ear, which sets the anvil, hammer, and stirrup bones in motion. Each of these three tiny bones responds to the movements of the other two, creating a more amplified and unique vibration that finally reaches the inner ear.

The Effects of Music on the Brain

A neuron represented as a pink ball with blue light coming off of it
Several different parts of the brain are stimulated by music. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Once soundwaves pass through the outer and middle ear, they reach the inner ear in the form of vibrations. The biggest part of the inner ear, the cochlea, is responsible for translating these vibrations into electrical signals by displacing the nerve fibers that line it. Those electrical signals travel up those nerve fibers to the auditory nerve, which then sends them to various parts of the brain.

Electrical signals from music stimulate several parts of the brain. First, the auditory cortex, located just above the ears, is responsible for interpreting the pitch of different notes as well as the rhythm and tempo of a piece of music. Secondly, the frontal gyrus and dorsolateral frontal cortex-- located in the cerebrum-- enable you to call to mind memories associated with the sounds you hear. Finally, music stimulates the limbic system, which causes emotional responses in the listener. Interestingly, the amygdala-- which transmits negative emotions like sadness and fear-- is often inhibited while listening to music. This explains why listening to music is generally a pleasant experience.

Music and Nausea

A person rests her foot against a radio
Music therapy is uniquely equipped to block chemotherapy-induced nausea. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Now that we have an understanding of how music reaches and stimulates the brain, we can delve into how it benefits cancer patients dealing with chemotherapy-induced nausea. Although nausea generally comes with physical symptoms-- like vomiting-- it is actually a neurological phenomenon. Nausea is a defense mechanism that kicks into effect when your body perceives a threat-- whether that threat be a bacteria, virus, negative emotional stimulus, or an unexpected disruption to the brain’s usual function. When cancer patients undergo chemotherapy, it takes a huge toll on their body and their brain, triggering a feeling of nausea.

Since nausea, in spite of its physical effects, is at its core a neurological problem, it can be affected by other neurological phenomena-- such as music. Research shows that the chemical serotonin is the chief transmitter of chemotherapy-induced nausea in particular. When people listen to music that they enjoy, their brains release less serotonin-- meaning that music can partially block the chemical responsible for chemotherapy-induced nausea.

This is incredible news-- although the majority of chemotherapy patients develop symptoms of nausea, anti-nausea medication is extremely expensive. Even those who take medication still often experience symptoms. But music-- and music therapy-- is accessible to pretty much everyone. Music therapy can therefore provide an affordable alternative to expensive, semi-effective anti-nausea medication.

Other Benefits for Cancer Patients

A record player
Music therapy has plenty of other benefits for cancer patients, too. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Music therapy can also benefit cancer patients in plenty of other ways. Undergoing major life-altering treatments like chemotherapy often has major psychological effects on patients, such as anxiety and depression. But as we discussed earlier, listening to music usually inhibits stimulation of the amygdala-- the part of the brain associated with negative emotions like fear. 

The management of these negative emotions can help decrease patients’ anxiety and stress levels and alleviate depression symptoms. Fighting to manage anxiety and depression in the face of cancer treatment is often crucial to patients’ recovery processes. Although there is some debate over what type of music is most suited to decreasing anxiety and depression, the general consensus is that music chosen by the patient him-or-herself is most effective.

Music therapy can also help reduce patients’ symptoms of physical pain. The process for this is very similar to the way that music blocks chemotherapy-induced nausea. Pain, like nausea, is a neurological phenomenon. Although pain often accompanies a very real injury or sickness, we feel pain via a series of signals sent to the brain by the nerves. Those signals release stress hormones, which can in turn increase the pain signals.

Since music helps modulate the limbic system and often inhibits negative emotions, our brains release significantly fewer stress hormones while listening to it. With fewer stress hormones being released, our bodies do not feel the need to send more intense pain signals to the brain- which means that we don’t feel the pain as acutely as we otherwise would.

All of these things-- the reduction of chemotherapy-induced nausea, physical pain, anxiety, and depression-- can do wonders to improve the lives of cancer patients. Researchers are still investigating all the ways in which music therapy can positively impact cancer patients, and to what degree, but as we’ve seen, the results so far have been more than promising. A free, easily-accessible alternative to expensive medication that can also improve cancer patients’ mental state and outlook on life is absolutely invaluable-- and music is one of the most accessible resources in today’s world.

Music Therapy can Help Cancer Patients Combat Nausea-- and More!

Although music therapy is still a rapidly-developing and rapidly-growing field, it has already proven extremely useful to countless patients. By learning how music reaches and impacts different parts of the brain, we can start to understand the far-reaching effects that music therapy can have on all parts of our well-being-- from managing negative emotions, to altering our outlook on life, to altering perceptions of pain or nausea. As research into music therapy continues, its list of known uses and benefits for patients continues to grow.

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