Archive for September 4th, 2009

Sensory Healing

healingMusic, art and touch can help calm the mind, reduce anxiety and even relieve pain, discovers Anne Montague

We all know instinctively that listening to music can help us wind down, that certain smells can be soothing or that having a massage is a great way to destress. But scientists now say that sensory stimulation – through music, massage, visual arts or aromatherapy – delivers more than just a feel-good factor: it can have positive and measurable effects on health. As well as relieving anxiety and depression, these approaches can help reduce pain, lower blood pressure and even help patients with epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.

A three-year study at London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital found that patients benefited both mentally and physically from the 1,000 works of art displayed around the hospital and an arts programme that includes a resident pianist, poetry readings and live music. The music and visual art was found to reduce anxiety and depression among pregnant women, cancer patients having chemotherapy and patients waiting for surgery. Women in the antenatal high-risk clinic who listened to live music had lowered blood pressure, and the music meant that post-surgical patients needed less pain relief and left hospital a day earlier than the average.

US research has shown that harp music can reduce pain, lower the heart rate and decrease blood pressure. At the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Trust, a resident harpist plays to intensive-care patients, those on the transplant wards and those with severe respiratory diseases. Other research has found that music can be beneficial to premature babies. It has also been used to bring people out of a coma and can reduce anxiety adn aggression in Alzheimer’s patients. Amazingly, people with Alzheimer’s who can no longer speak are still able to sing and remember songs.

Paul Robertson, professor of music and health at the Peninsula Medical School in Devon, says that you have to go back to the womb to understand music’s healing power. ‘We are hardwired to respond to music. Our auditory system is the first to develop, and by 26 weeks in the womb it is fully functioning and perhaps even more sensitive to music than later in life.

‘The auditory system – and our musical response – is also locked into the autonomic nervous system, which helps control our blood pressure and pulse and broadly shapes our sense of wellbeing, which explains why music can have such a powerful physical impact.’

At the National Society for Epilepsy, therapists use music to help patients relax. One study has shown that listening to certain compositions, notably one of Mozart’s piano concertos, can decrease patterns of brain activity that lead to seizures. ‘The impact of music is intriguing,’ says professor John Duncan, head of the Department of Clinical and Experimental Neurology at University College London’s Institute of Neurology. ‘It’s not clear how it might help – it could have something to do with the cadence and rhythm of the music, or simply because it helps relaxation, as there’s evidence that stress contributes to the frequency of seizures.’

Stimulating other senses can have a powerful impact, too. At the Touch Research Institute in Miami, researchers have found that massage can help with a range of conditions, from improving lung function in asthmatic children and boosting immunity in breast-cancer patients to reducing pain in labour, lowering blood pressure and reducing the pain of migraine.

Combining touch and smell with aromatherapy can also be beneficial. Doctors at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary found that alopecia patients treated with a combination of thyme, rosemary, lavender and cedarwood in carrier oils massaged into their scalps showed far more improvement in hair growth than patients who were massaged with carrier oil alone.

A recent Cancer Research UK study of nearly 300 cancer patients found that giving patients just four 50-minute sessions of aromatherapy after chemotherapy and other cancer treatments relieved anxiety and depression much faster than other approaches. Professor Amanda Ramirez, who led the research, says she was surprised by the impact of the aromatherapy. ‘All these patients had anxiety and depression severe enough to need treatment and more than 40% had advanced or incurable cancers.’

Anxiety and depression in the aromatherapy group improved far faster than for those not receiving the treatment and the benefits lasted for up to four weeks afterwards. ‘It’s very exciting – the rapid improvement was particularly important because so many of these patients had limited life expectancy,’ she says. She has personal experience of the benefits of aromatherapy. Two years into the trial, she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer and decided to try aromatherapy during her treatment. ‘Although I wasn’t suffering from depression it was a very positive experience,’ she says. ‘It was intensely relaxing, like a balm.’

Aromatherapy helped me recover
When Nasim Panjwani, from Essex, was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly seven years ago it confirmed her worst fears: her mother had died from the disease seven years earlier. ‘It was after my treatment finished that things became very difficult,’ says Nasim, now 49. ‘At first I was in denial, but during the second year it hit me. I became very anxious and developed insomnia.’ Although she had never used complementary therapies, she decided to try aromatherapy. ‘I was sceptical, but I was amazed by how helpful it was. I had aromatherapy once a month for a year. Before having it my mind would be racing but afterwards my anxiety levels dropped, I started to feel calmer and was able to sleep. It really helped me through my illness.’

The power of Mozart
Jeff Williams, 56, from Dorset, developed epilepsy as a child, and it has become progressively worse. He suffers from gelastic epilepsy, which causes uncontrollable outbursts of tears or laughter – in his case laughter, with around four seizures each day. Over the years, other types of seizures developed, including the traditional seizures known as grand mal, along with a severe decline in his memory.

‘My weak memory prevented me carrying on at work,’ he says. ‘I’d heard that the “Mozart effect” could help visual memory, and tried listening to his piano concerto K448 to see if it helped.’ To his disappointment, it didn’t do anything for his memory, but within days the music had an unexpected impact on his gelastic seizures. ‘Although they became more frequent, they were so short and mild that I hardly noticed them happening and for a short time I had no seizures at all. I listen to Mozart for about two hours every day now and although the impact has worn off a little, I can still see the effect.’

Stimulate your senses
– Play soothing music to beat insomnia. US experts found that nine out of 10 insomniacs who listened to music before bedtime and whenever their sleep was disturbed said it improved their sleep.
– Join a choir. Singing is an aerobic activity that increases lung capacity, improves posture, tones muscles and reduces stress.
– Sing to reduce snoring and improve sleep apnoea. Researchers at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital are trialling a course of singing exercises designed to reduce snoring.
– Book a massage to help reduce anxiety and improve alertness. US researchers found that a 15-minute massage twice a month helped people relax, reduced stress and boosted alertness.
– Massage your hands or ear lobes to help quit smoking. Research found that smokers trying to give up who self-massaged when they craved cigarettes had fewer cravings than those who didn’t.
– Recent studies show that lavender and rosemary can boost mood, reduce anxiety and improve performance and alertness. A drop of lavender oil on the pillow at night also improves sleep.

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September 2009
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