Can Music Calm a Shift Worker’s Soul and Improve Sleep as Well?

Where can you find Coldplay, Betty Buckley, The Beastie Boys, Bruce Hornsby, and Vanessa Carleton all working together? Seems like an unlikely group, doesn’t it?

These musicians and many other creative types are big supporters of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function (IMNF). Created in 1995, IMNF was founded to restore, maintain and improve people’s physical, emotional and neurologic functioning through the systematic use of music. IMNF collaborates with researchers and practitioners around the world to advance the understanding and application of the power of music to promote healing and wellness. Some of IMNF’s most significant research and startling findings are in the areas of music and its impact on language, memory, and recovery from nerve injury.

How does music affect shift workers? Should it be listened to at work? Does it help you fall asleep? Can it lower stress when coping with variable schedules?

In this week’s Boston Globe, there was an article about a surgeon, Dr. Claudius Conrad, of Massachusetts General Hospital, who is scientifically testing how music affects surgeons and their patients. Dr. Conrad’s goal is to determine whether music can improve results of surgery and whether it might be used as a medical treatment. IMNF and many other music institutes are already using music to heal patients, so it is in fact, already a medical treatment. But what Dr. Conrad is doing is trying to better, is understand is why, and how, music works. In a small study published in 2007, Dr. Conrad tested the effects of music on a group of 10 critically ill patients. Half the group listened to the slow movements of Mozart piano sonatas through headphones for an hour, and the other half heard no music. Those who heard music needed less sedation, had reduced stress hormone levels, lower blood pressure and lower heart rates.

In a study of surgeons’ reactions to music, to test the effects of music in the operating room, Dr. Conrad created tasks for surgeons to complete on a computer simulator. He tested the speed and accuracy of eight expert surgeons as they performed the tasks under different conditions: in silence; while listening to Mozart, and while hearing a different stream of music in each ear (German folk music and death metal). Dr. Conrad found that the dissonant folk and death metal combination increased the time it took the surgeons to do the procedures, but did not affect their accuracy, as compared to the silence. While listening to Mozart, the surgeons’ speed varied, but their accuracy improved compared with silence.

So should we all be listening to Mozart? The jury’s still out on that, but it’s looking good. Just today, doctors at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, in another small study, announced that listening to Mozart lowered the quantity of energy premature babies used, possibly meaning they may be able to increase their weight faster. The study measured the energy expenditure of 20 infants born pre-term while listening to Mozart in their incubators. A study of seniors by The College of Nursing at Seattle University in Washington found that listening to music such as Mozart or to relaxation tapes three or more times a week resulted in lower blood pressure in the seniors participating in the study.

Many shift workers experience great stress in managing their variable work schedules. This stress can lead to chronic health conditions such as gastrointestinal disease, higher cardiovascular risk, and sleep disorders, amongst others. Shift workers often cope by taking stimulants or drinking coffee to stay awake and drinking alcohol, thinking it will help them sleep. Perhaps listening to music would both provide a more holistic treatment to chronic health conditions and be a healthier coping mechanism.^

Researchers from the Arts and Quality of Life Research Center at Temple University in Philadelphia reviewed data from 23 studies, including 1,461 patients. They concluded that listening to music provided some relief for coronary heart disease patients suffering from anxiety, by reducing heart rate and blood pressure. Music listening also seemed to improve mood, although not amongst those suffering from depression due to the disease. Another study, this one reported in the UK-based Journal of Advanced Nursing, found that listening to music reduced chronic pain by up to 21% and depression by up to 25%. The researchers also reported that listening to music also makes people feel more in control of their pain and less disabled by their condition.

There isn’t any universal answer to the question. Should music be listened to at work? Company policies at mostly every business in the world has debated this question over and over, and come to their own conclusions based on what’s best for each individual work environment. Despite some claims that music helps with concentration, some people find it distracting. Some workplaces agree that listening to music is good for workers’ moods and productivity, but no one can agree on what to listen to. Listening individually on mp3 players is allowed by some company policies and prohibited by others, often out of concerns for safety. The bottom line is employees have to follow company policies.

Many shift workers report that they listen to music while falling asleep. It’s true, coming home in the morning after working all night, our bodies circadian rhythms are telling us to wake up, not sleep. Despite feeling so drowsy the whole ride home from work, sometimes, when shift workers get into bed, they’re wide awake. A 2008 study done by University of Michigan found that among 31 elderly patients, some who listened to music at bedtime for three weeks and some who did not, those who did significantly improved their sleep quality. According to a study by the Cleveland Clinic, listening to melodic music decreases the activity of individual neurons in the deep brain; the physical responses to the calming music ranged from patients’ closing their eyes to falling asleep.

It looks like those shift workers who found listening to music was sleep inducing had it right!

People with chronic health conditions should not read this post as suggesting they stop following their health care providers’ recommended treatment for their illness. However, listening to music can be used a supplement to existing treatments, and who knows, long term, it might reduce the need for other medications,“ should the health care provider make this decision along with the patient.

©2009 Circadian Age, Inc. ‘Working Nights’

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