Post-Op Opera: Music Helps Surgery Patients Recover

Pumping pleasant tunes into patients' headphones hastened the healing process.
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Pumping pleasant tunes into patients' headphones hastened the healing process.

Even hard-core music lovers may not feel like reaching for their iPod as they're being wheeled out of the operating room. But two new studies report rhythm and harmony promote rejuvenation and health in the hours and days immediately after surgery.

The research papers, which describe a pilot study of cardiac surgery patients and an experiment featuring older adults undergoing hip or knee surgery, are both published in the inaugural issue of the journal Music and Medicine. Together, they suggest the much-discussed healing power of music can play a valuable role in the postoperative healing process.

The heart surgery study, which involved 67 patients, was created and chronicled by Dr. Fred Schwartz, an anesthesiologist at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta. Headphones were installed in five of the 10 beds in an Intensive Care Unit, where patients were recovering from coronary artery bypass graft surgery. 

Those who were randomly selected for one of the music-system-equipped beds had headphones put on them upon their arrival from the operating room. The devices were initially set at a low-to-moderate volume to a channel featuring delicate piano music by such artists as George Shearing and David Benoit.

As soon as the patients were awake enough to communicate, they were given the choice to switch to another channel or have the headphones removed. On average, they spent 259 minutes — just under five hours — listening to music during their first day in the ICU.

The results (drum roll, please): Compared to the control group, patients in the music group spent an average of five hours less in the ICU before being deemed sufficient stable to be moved into a regular hospital room. Using language likely to appeal to hospital administrators, Dr. Schwartz concludes: "The financial cost of utilizing music with ICU patients is relatively small compared to the potential economic benefits."

The second study looked at the effect of music on postoperative confusion. According to a 2005 study, 30 to 50 percent of elderly patients experience a period of acute confusion or delirium after hip or knee surgery. Such episodes, which often lengthen one's hospital stay, can be kicked off by the stress of the operation, the anesthesia, and/or postoperative pain and the medication taken to relieve it.

The experiment, conducted by Ruth McCaffrey of the Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University, featured 22 elderly patients (average age 75) in a three-day postoperative recovery program. Half of them listened to music for at least four hours per day during their stay. Their mental functioning was measured each day using two standard tests.

Those in the music group began listening to lullabies immediately upon their arrival on the hospital's orthopedic floor. Like the cardiac patients, they were given the choice of various genres once they were awake and alert.

Once again, the results rock. The music group had lower levels of acute confusion than the control group on all three postoperative days.

In terms of cognitive abilities, those in the music group scored significantly higher than the control group on a standard test during both of the first two days. By Day Three, the control group essentially caught up, with both groups showing similar scores.

So music seems to have lessened confusion and helped patients regain cognitive skills more quickly — no small achievement. As McCaffrey concludes, "Music is a safe, easy-to-use, inexpensive therapy that nurses may use independently as an intervention for older adults after hip or knee surgery."

For the struggling music industry, this opens up an endless array of marketing opportunities. Consider the compilation CDs that are waiting to be made. Post-op bebop. Hip-hop for hip surgery. And, of course, songs for — and from — the heart.

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