Everyone dreads the dentist chair when they know they have a cavity. Sometimes even a sound that reminds you of a dentist's drill can cause perceived pain! I have worked with clients at the doctor's office, in hospital rooms, and at home to help them with pain management. These patients have been dealing with everything from needle sticks to chronic pain from disease and in many cases using music to help them relax and ignore the pain has been very effective.
The main theory behind using music to help with pain management is centered around the "Gate Control Theory of Pain." This theory establishes that a person cannot actively think about two different information streams at the same time. Pain is a perceived idea in our cognitive thought process. Without cognitively focusing on the pain, the sensation can be greatly diminished. The Gate Control Theory is useful in that it promotes using focus of attention to distract from pain. Active music listening or music used for relaxation are very effective ways to focus attention.
Music provides a preferred and pleasant stimulus for focus of attention. The sound of music can mask unwanted environmental sounds such as medical staff talking about procedures or the clanking of surgical equipment. Music may also act as a trigger for positive memories and associations. The choice of music, therefore, is key to successfully utilizing it as a tool for distraction from pain. In order to further enhance the success of using music to distract from pain, a person may also choose whether they want to use upbeat and highly preferred music or sedative music to use for pain management.
Upbeat or stylized music may be a better choice for masking environmental sounds and promoting active listening. Familiar lyrics and memories associated with favorite songs may more easily hold active thought patterns and form "trains of thought" to other memories. Sedative music may be recommended for highly stressful situations where anxiety and tension are contributors to pain. In most cases, muscle tension will increase pain sensations by heightening physical awareness and pulling the thought pattern towards thinking about environmental sensations. Tightening the muscle fibers can also cause more painful procedures such as needle sticks or shots into the muscle tissue. Music facilitated relaxation provides a distraction as well as helping to relax the muscles.
I suggest using music listening during dental procedures, blood draws and before surgery to help with a variety of issues, including pain management. All of these settings easily accommodate headphones and family, friends or a therapist who can be there to help.