Music can help some patients breathe easier

By • Published: March 16th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Music has the power to soothe the nerves and lift the spirits. Now researchers are finding it can help certain patients breathe easier when they are being taken off mechanical ventilators.

About one-and-a-half million patients a year in the United States are put on mechanical ventilation for a variety of reasons — when they have anesthesia for surgery or when their ability to breathe on their own is impaired because of an acute or chronic illness or trauma. People who take more than a few hours or days to start breathing on their own again must be weaned from the ventilator by gradually increasing the amount of time spent off the machine until they are fully independent.

Many patients on ventilators experience stress and anxiety accompanied by symptoms such as fear, agitation, pain, frustration, thirst and confusion. But treating their anxiety with sedatives is counterproductive, because side effects such as depression of breathing disrupt the weaning process and make it take even longer. Untreated anxiety in such patients can interfere with their recovery and make it harder for them to start breathing on their own.

In addition, the longer that patients have to stay on a ventilator, the more they rack up health care costs, since resources and staff from medicine, nursing, respiratory, physical and speech therapy, nutrition and other areas all have to be engaged in caring for the patients as they transition.

In one study, music helped ease anxiety without prolonging the amount of time needed for weaning, as reported in the Journal of Music Therapy. The music likely helped the patients relax, the researchers said, to the tune of providing a distraction and an emotional outlet.