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A Genre for Every Ache: Using Music to Manage Chronic Pain

(Photo Credit: Vijat Mohindra/NBC via Getty Images)

“It’s helpful to realize there is no silver bullet treatment or one-size-fits-all therapeutic approach to pain,” says Dr. Jacob Hascalovici, chief medical officer for Clearing. This is one of those nuggets of advice that, for people living with chronic pain, is frustrating and healing in equal measure. 

There is no magical cure for chronic pain, with which 50 million people live in the United States, according to a 2022 study. Every day, scores of people are navigating the medical and holistic worlds to figure out how to live with this unwieldy monster. 

Chronic pain dominates my daily life, interfering with cognitive and physical function, sometimes making basic tasks, such as brushing my hair or cooking a meal, feel insurmountable. But, for me, harnessing the simple, yet complex, power of music made life feel accessible again. 

“Music triggers the release of endorphins, some of which fight or muffle pain,” continues Hascalovici. “As a way of distracting or expressing ourselves, music offers multiple ways to drown out the pain, diminish loneliness, and feel more connected and in control. For many, music certainly does help with pain abatement on a daily basis.”

Before I made music a coping mechanism, my life was dictated by the moods of chronic pain. It kicked off when I was just 14 years old. Starting as a combo platter of non-stop lower back pain and intermittent sharp, stabbing pains all over my body, chronic pain completed its bodily invasion within a matter of days.

Restful sleep became a distant memory, my mobility reduced significantly, and my cognitive function diminished day by day. For the first couple of years, I dealt with the pain without a diagnosis. My physicians were lost, and the epic delays of the United Kingdom’s health system meant finding complete answers took nearly 15 years. 

As the months and then years, wore on, the exhaustion of wrestling with this great,  unknowable thing crushed me. As it worsened, my world shrunk. I socialized less and less, missed countless days of school, and lost interest in exercise and hobbies. My life had been irrevocably shaken, and I did not know what to blame or how to fix it. 

“The longer pain persists, the more likely the person starts to avoid activities that they normally enjoy,” says Dr. Erson Religioso III, a physical therapy doctor. “If a person has to give up the things they love, such as sports, exercise, or travel, the effects are significant—often leading to depression and isolation. This further increases kinesiophobia [fear of movement] and fear avoidance behaviors, which feed into that cycle of pain.”

My kinesiophobia evolved with the pain, as it grew fiercer with every passing month, requiring increasingly strong doses of painkillers to cope. It morphed from an occasional visitor to a 24/7 resident in my body. I could no longer remember what it felt like to not be in pain. 

Eventually, the diagnoses trickled in. My first chronic pain diagnosis was fibromyalgia, a condition that causes widespread nerve pain. From the first stab of pain, it took eight years to identify because it’s typically identified via the exclusion of all other possibilities. During this time, various specialists also diagnosed joint hypermobility syndrome, irritable bowel disease, and localized scleroderma, an autoimmune condition. 

The final piece of the puzzle finally arrived in October 2021 when, after undergoing surgery to remove growths from my pelvic region, my surgeon diagnosed me with endometriosis. Having names to assign to each type of pain offered some salvation, but I had already started using music to manage long before a diagnosis provided any comfort. 

It began in hospital waiting rooms, at the peak of my emo era. Already “angstified” by the hormones raging through my body, the addition of non-stop chronic pain cranked my emo tendencies to new heights. 

As I languished in a series of identical waiting rooms, always knowing that every doctor’s answer would be, “I don’t know, let’s do some tests,” music became a salve to soothe the anguish.

Whenever I arrived in a hospital, earphones attached to my pink iPod mini would go into my ears, and the moody guitar strums of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain or Avenged Sevenfold’s Synyster Gates would flood my eardrums. On particularly angsty days, the dulcet tones of Three Days Grace and Linkin Park would echo my feelings of “I hate everything about you” and “in the end, nothing really matters.” 

The anger and deep, raw hurt clear in the lyrics, guitar lines, and drumbeats of these iconic bands were the perfect soundtrack to my experience. They offered a tangible representation of what undiagnosable agony felt like. Their angst was my safety net, holding a safe space to escape to. 

When power chords were simply not enough, melancholic ballads penned by artists like Florence and the Machine, A Fine Frenzy, and the Fray became conduits for my heartbreak. Their intensity felt particularly essential when I discovered that none of my conditions were curable. 

I told myself to “shake it out” because, unfortunately, chronic pain is rarely fixable, and managing it requires a lot of trial and error. 

“As a doctor, I counsel that successful treatment is often not going to be due to a single treatment, but to a variety of complementary treatments working together,” says Hascalovici. “Some of those treatments include strategic rest, targeted stretches, alternating ice or heat, regular activity or exercise, therapeutic breathing, and lifestyle modifications such as low-inflammation eating.”

I spent years, and hundreds of pounds, before I realized that traditional pain management techniques were not working for me. Opioids became an addiction, acupuncture just made me laugh, and lidocaine infusions had zero impact. In the face of this seemingly insurmountable obstacle, I forged a path ahead using music as a primary coping mechanism; a therapy I did not know existed, let alone how to apply.

“Music therapy involves the intentional use and experience of music facilitated by a credentialed board-certified music therapist to improve quality of life in some way,” explains board-certified music therapist for Choosing Therapy Abby Klemm. “Typically a music therapist works with the client and/or caregivers to determine goals that guide the sessionsgoals may encompass physical, emotional, psychosocial, cognitive, and musical needs.”

While my entry into music therapy was accidental, the benefits were immediate. When using music to navigate a pain flare-up, I coped without experiencing a drop in mood afterward. Pain levels receded as they responded to the mood of whichever song or artist I applied in my makeshift therapy sessions.

It’s easy to understand why when looking at how music affects all the areas of the brain, as Dr. Bethany Cook, a licensed psychologist, explains.

“When you listen to music, your entire brain is ‘lit up’ with neural activity,” she says. “This allows increased blood flow to areas of the brain that may need a little ‘boost,’ especially during stressful times when areas of the brain slow down/shut down in an effort to cope with stress.”

Before recognizing music’s innate ability to ease psychological and physical pain, my approach to music selection was dependent on my mood and whims of the day.

The moment of realization arrived during a break from university when I spent hours dancing around the kitchen with my family. We spun, laughed, and shimmied our way around the room, lost in the total joy of dancing without self-consciousness. I felt liberated, and, finally, pain retreated to the back of my mind. The focus, for once, was on how good it felt to move my body, a liberating feeling after kinesphobia had stifled its movements. 

As Religioso says, “I tell patients they have two choices, keep moving, or stop moving altogether.” This beautiful moment of physical freedom had finally let that lesson sink in: I had to move my body and music could be my pathway. 

After this lightbulb dance-a-thon, I fine-tuned a system to create a life that lived alongside pain, rather than in resistance to it. I stopped fighting and started adapting, with music as an ally. So I curated playlists to accommodate the different moods of my various disorders. 

Once relying on hard rock beats and emo music, I now use instrumental chill hop and classic music to manage fibromyalgia flare-ups. Nerve pain ebbs and flows on its own course, and there is little I can do to quell its moods, yet the calm of instrumental music soothes its sharp edges. It distracts from the daily impact of its presence and helps me relax into meditation and mindfulness techniques that I use to manage my mood swings.

To ease the agony of hypermobile joints, I created a playlist of ‘90s hip hop anthems and soul music because, for some unidentifiable reason, they feel in tune with the cracks and violent subluxations of this particular condition. Similarly, to wrestle with the searing pain of irritable bowel disease, I employ a combination of rap classics and R&B tracks because the fast beats and winding lyrics feel like they have the power to unspool my twisted intestines. 

After struggling for years with the physical discomfort and subsequent self-esteem issues of living with scars sprawled across my body, I discovered the influence of girl power beats. Blasting anthems from artists like Miley Cyrus, EMELINE, and St Vincent soothes my self-esteem and encourages me to separate confidence from physicality. 

Then, once I got diagnosed with endometriosis, I curated a playlist of songs with strong guitar lines or drum beats, such as the Dandy Warhols or Metallica, because the intense rhythmic pounding feels as though it is breaking down the wall of pain built inside my abdomen. 

The system is not perfect or a cure for chronic pain, but it has been transformative. Chronic pain no longer feels like an immovable object obstructing my life, I have learned to flow around it instead, using music to dictate each beat of the day. 

And it has the power to do the same for others if applied correctly. And by correctly, I mean individualized to people’s tastes. The playlists I rely on may not suit others with the same set of conditions—they could even antagonize symptoms. 

“Chronic pain is a very complex, personal, and subjective experience that is both physical and psychological,” agrees Cook. “One way those living with chronic pain can utilize the power of music is to learn how to manage and shift mood states with songs. This will be different for everyone because we all respond to emotions in our own unique way.”

There are still days when the weight of chronic pain feels as though it will decimate my life. I must expend a lot of energy maintaining various coping mechanisms and reckoning with the impact on my mental well-being. However, music provides hope. 

It seems an innocuous thing to so many of us, just a casual but persistent presence that we forget to acknowledge. Its power should not be forgotten or neglected. I no longer feel trapped by the confines of chronic pain because music has the power to liberate me. Its existence is a comfort, even when it’s not playing. It is a safe space that I can always return to when an ache calls out to be soothed. 



Nirvana – “Drain You”: While definitely not about chronic pain, I remember the line “It is nowmy duty to completely drain you” resonating so strongly when the chronic pain began to escalate. I felt as though it was literally draining the life out of me, and this song was a way to verbalize that feeling. 

Miley Cyrus – “Flowers”: A new addition to my self-love playlist, this anthem reminds me that my self-esteem and confidence does not have to be reliant on how good my body looks or how often it’s validated by someone else. I am free to be myself when this song graces my ears. 

Q-Tip (feat. Norah Jones) – “Life Is Better”: A tune I used to call the “bounce song” because I kept forgetting its name. This song resonates with me particularly strongly when my irritable bowel disease or hypermobile joints are acting up. Its ups and downs create a conduit to release the painful spasms. 

Emmy Meli – “I Am Woman”: The perfect girl power ballad, this song is all I need when the scars that litter my body start to erode my confidence. 

The Dandy Warhols – “Godless”: I love every song ever recorded by the Dandy Warhols, but “Godless” is one of my favorites because of the rhythm of the song, which always helps me work through harsh pain days. 

baskaaT – “Bittersweet”: A relaxing flow of a song that is the peak of my chill hop playlist. It is the perfect song to relax with when fibromyalgia pain is demanding my attention. 

Salt-N-Pepa – “None Of Your Business”: A classic tune. I always feel empowered when I’m listening to this, and it helps ease the aches of subluxing joints, especially when I divert my attention to trying to keep up with their rap speed. 

Spineshank – “New Disease”: As an accidental collector of “new diseases,” this song always resonated with me. It made me feel seen on the darkest days and enabled me to feel like I could face another doctor, even if they still had no answers for me. 

A Fine Frenzy – “Borrowed Time”: During the beginning of my chronic illness journey, I had multiple cancer scares and I constantly felt like I could be living on “borrowed time.” This melancholy tune made me feel seen when I was drowning in fear. 

Florence and the Machine – “Shake It Out”: A constant on my playlists since it first came out. This song is a beautiful reminder to shake out the pain of daily life and keep moving forward, always.