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Tense? Sing your nerves away, case study suggests

By Karen Blum

Nervous about an upcoming medical procedure? Try singing your troubles away.

Singing comforting songs helped significantly lower the blood pressure of a 76-year-old woman awaiting knee replacement surgery in the Dominican Republic, Harvard researchers report. The woman, who had a 15-year history of osteoarthritis in both knees, had been accepted into Operation Walk Boston, a philanthropic program providing total joint replacement to Dominican patients. She was admitted to Hospital General de la Plaza in Santo Domingo for total replacement of both knee joints last March.

The patient’s blood pressure on admission was 160/90 mmHg, controlled by her usual medication regimen. But two days later, on the morning of surgery, her blood pressure skyrocketed to 240/120 mmHg while she waited in the preoperative holding area. The anesthesiology team sent her back to the floor for additional blood pressure management and postponed her surgery until the following morning. Though doctors started her immediately on additional doses of anti-hypertensive medicines, her systolic pressure stayed at 200 mmHg.

With a tense atmosphere in the patient’s room and time running out before the outreach team would leave the country, the worried patient asked if she could sing.

“Softly at first, and then with increasing volume and passion, the patient sang six religious songs invoking Jesus, God and her Savior to protect the innocent and ill, bring peace, spread truth and heal souls,” the authors wrote in the April issue of Arthritis Care & Research. The patient was a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist church and sang while attending services several times a week.

After two songs, the team found her blood pressure had dropped to 180/90 mmHg. A few songs later, her systolic pressure lowered further. The lower pressures persisted throughout 20 minutes of singing and for several hours after.

“When she started singing, I noticed immediately that she looked a lot calmer – her facial expressions and body language (relaxed), which was reflected in the blood pressure measurements,” says study author Nina Niu, a second-year medical student who was part of the woman’s treatment team.

That night, doctors gave her medical orders to sing as necessary, which she did at various times throughout the night. The next morning she was cleared for surgery and underwent a successful operation with no complications or difficulty with postoperative blood pressure management.

It’s not the first look at music’s impact on health, the authors note. At least nine other studies demonstrated the positive health effects of music therapy on preoperative anxiety and blood pressure management, one of which found that listening to music was as effective as the prescription drug benzodiazepine for reducing blood pressure before surgery.

Crooning may not work for everyone, but it’s worth a try, Niu says: “It’s safe, cost-free and toxicity-free, so it’s a pretty ideal intervention.”

Does a certain song always calm you down? Tell us about it.