Turn It Up To Tune Stress Out

Critical care patients reported less anxiety after listening to headphones

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Hospitals can be chaotic. Critically ill patients may have less anxiety and need fewer sedatives if they’re allowed to listen to their own choice of music through headphones.

A recent study tested how listening to music could help critically ill patients attached to breathing machines.

The results of this study showed patient-selected music helped reduce anxiety levels and the need for higher levels of sedatives in many patients.

"Ask a nurse if headphones are available for hospitalized loved ones."

Linda L. Chlan, PhD, RN, distinguished professor of symptom management research in the College of Nursing at Ohio State University, led a clinical trial to test the use of music to lower anxiety in patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) of a hospital.

ICU patients may experience anxiety when they are attached to breathing machines known as ventilators. Being attached to a breathing machine can be uncomfortable and unnerving, and ICUs can be stressful, bright and loud places.

While attached to breathing machines, patients are often on sedatives and painkillers. High doses and long-term use of sedatives and painkillers may increase the odds of developing low blood pressure, weakness, stomach trouble and delirium.

“Music is a powerful distractor that can alter perceived levels of anxiety by occupying attention channels in the brain with meaningful, auditory stimuli rather than stressful environmental stimuli,” the study authors wrote.

For this clinical trial, the researchers set out to find non-prescription methods to lower anxiety levels of ICU patients who were hooked up to breathing machines.

In this trial, 373 ICU patients from 12 different ICUs at five hospitals in Minnesota were tested for daily anxiety levels and sedative use. The patients were being treated for respiratory failure between 2006 and 2011.

A music therapist communicated with 126 patients to provide the patients with their choice of music through headphones whenever they liked.

Noise-cancelling headphones were given to 122 of the patients. The noise-cancelling headphones could be turned on and off by the patients whenever they liked.

The remaining 125 patients acted as the control group and were treated as usual in the ICU.

The patients with music headphones listened to an average of 126 minutes of music per day, although at least one patient listened to music for more than 13 hours on at least one day.

The patients with the noise-cancelling headphones used them for an average of 90 minutes per day. At least one patient used the noise-cancelling headphones for more than 15 hours on at least one day.

The patients in the study spent an average of five days in the ICU.

Patients who did not have music or noise-cancelling headphones received an average of five doses of sedatives per day. By the fifth day, the music-listening patients only received an average of three doses of sedatives, which was a 38 percent reduction in medication.

The music-listening patients also had a 36 percent reduction in the strength of painkillers they received by the fifth day as compared to the usual care group.

On the anxiety test, which has a scale from 0 to 100, the usual care group reported an average score of 52, compared to an average of 33 by those in the music-listening group.

“Music provides patients with a comforting and familiar stimulus and the patient-directed music intervention empowers patients in their own anxiety management; it is an inexpensive, easily implemented non-pharmacological intervention that can reduce anxiety, reduce sedative medication exposure, and potentially associated adverse effects,” wrote the study authors.

This study was published in May in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The National Institutes of Health and the National Institutes of Nursing Research helped support funding for this project. No conflicts of interest were found.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 19, 2013
Last Updated:
August 30, 2013