U.S. New & World Report — August 14, 2017

“I think music in itself is healing,” singer-songwriter Billy Joel once said. As it turns out, the popular musician may be onto something. Numerous scientific studies are singing the praises of music for its ability to enhance our overall health and well-being. For multiple sclerosis patients, melodies may offer an additional chorus of physical and emotional benefits.

“Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that damages the covering of neurons in the brain and spinal cord; it’s a disabling disease without a cure as of yet,” says Dr. Randy Rosenberg, assistant professor of neurology at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Pittsburgh.

“We have medications that can deal with many of the symptoms of MS, such as problems with spasticity and gait, depression, brain fog, fatigue and pain,” Rosenberg says. “But all medications have their own blessings and curses. That’s why if we can find alternatives with a humanistic advantage, such as music, I’m fully in favor of it.”

Rosenberg is not only a neurologist, but also the principal flutist in the Warminster Symphony Orchestra in Pennsylvania. So, it’s not surprising that he’s especially keen on music’s healing potential. His particular enthusiasm is in rhythm’s potential to help patients deal with their spasticity issues by “retraining” their brains and making new neural pathways. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society says spasticity is one of the most common symptoms of the disease. “The pulsations of rhythm can help patients with spastic gait retrain their brain’s circuitry and override the damaged areas,” Rosenberg explains. “Eventually they may be able to experience newfound elasticity as well as better balance.”

A 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence agrees that rhythm is indeed key. “Programs in which patients learn to match repetitive motor actions (like hand and foot exercises) with a computer-generated rhythmic beat can improve coordination, concentration and physical endurance. Through these exercises, patients experienced more even gait,” the report said.

Acupuncture, yoga and others may bring symptom relief for multiple sclerosis.

Along with gait issues, brain fog is also a common symptom of MS. “Many of my patients complain about problems with their memories, specifically not being able to retrieve words,” explains Dr. Jacqueline Marcus, director of the Kaiser Permanente multiple sclerosis program in San Francisco.

Marcus, who grew up in a musical family and whose mother, a music teacher, developed MS at age 51, says, “Just think how easily you can remember the lyrics to songs and the words to jingles. In a similar way, singing can help people retrieve vocabulary. Putting words together with a catchy melody can help MS patients remember important information.”

What’s more, there are studies showing that learning to play an instrument can help improve cognition and memory.

One of the reasons the link between music and memory is so powerful is that music activates large areas of the brain. A 2013 brain imaging study published in the journal NeuroImage reports that music activated the auditory, motor and limbic (emotional) regions of the brain – all of which contribute to movement, moods and cognition. These are areas often impaired by MS.

Music also seems to soothe pain, and that’s especially good news for MS patients who can suffer with two kinds of physical discomfort. One is neuropathic, caused by damage to the nerves in the ­­­brain and spinal cord. The other is musculoskeletal, the result of damage to muscles, tendons, ligaments and soft tissue. “Pain can be difficult to treat for people with MS, or any disease for that matter, because most pain medications have the added complication of possible dependency and addiction,” Marcus says. “Anything that is therapeutic and doesn’t cause harm is an option worth trying.” For example, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that patients who listened to music had four times less pain after their surgeries. Why? The music reached into deep brain structures. Music literally soothed the patients’ nerves. These findings were presented at the Music and Brain Symposium in New York in October 2009.

What about stress and anxiety? The Multiple Sclerosis Association of America says anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 43 percent of MS patients. “Music, especially slow and quiet music, has been shown to slow our pulse and heart rate, lower blood pressure and decrease levels of the stress hormone, cortisol,” Rosenberg points out. Music also helps boost mood, and that’s especially important for MS sufferers who typically report higher rates of depression than the general population. “Music can enhance optimism. When patients hear a tune tied to a pleasant memory, the joy can trigger the brain chemical dopamine and turn on the pleasure circuit – the same thing that happens after we eat a good meal or have sex,” Rosenberg says.

Studies confirm music’s ability to help us feel happier. In one, researchers from McGill University in Canada monitored the brains of volunteers using PET scans and MRIs, while the participants listened to the music they chose, ranging from classical to punk. The only requirement was that the music had to give the listener “chills.” When the researchers compared neutral tunes to the kind that caused chills, they discovered a boost in the volunteers’ dopamine.

 This article first appeared in U.S. News & World Report