Sound Healing for Treatment of Chronic Pain, Anxiety, Stress, and Drug Addiction, Part 1: An Introduction
by Elena Vidrascu, MSc
JPHMP presents Preventing America’s Next Drug Epidemic: A Multidisciplinary Approach, a new series designed to introduce the many facets of substance abuse, and how integrating the work of multiple partners may be the best approach towards prevention and treatment.
Can sound waves heal our bodies and minds? There’s a growing belief that certain holistic healing methods such as sound therapy do lead to positive health outcomes. In this two-part series, I explore the potential healing properties of sound therapy by examining the physiological responses we have to audio stimulation. I start by trying to better understand sound waves and how our ears and brains process information received audibly. Then I look at the relationship between our brain waves and our health in an effort to introduce you to sound healing. Next time, I’ll talk with Alexander Tuttle, musician and sound therapist based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to discuss the healing properties of sound in treating chronic pain, stress, anxiety, and drug addiction.
Listen to the audio or read the transcript below. When you’re finished, be sure to leave me a comment. Do you have any experience with sound healing therapies?
Welcome to Preventing America’s Next Drug Epidemic: A Multidisciplinary Approach, a series designed to introduce the many facets of substance use and how integrating the work of multiple partners may be the best approach towards prevention and treatment. I’m your host Elena Vidrascu, and in this two-part podcast, I’ll be looking at the use of sound therapy to help people struggling with various health conditions such as pain, anxiety, stress, and drug addiction.
In this episode, I will introduce you to sound healing and describe its interaction with our brains. Next time, I will be joined by Alexander Tuttle to discuss his use of a variety of sound instruments to deliver sound healing.
Regardless of what music you like to listen to, you can likely reflect on the power that it has had to get you through difficult times, motivate you during a workout, enhance your focus throughout a work task, and so on. We can feel that emotional connection, that energy with each beat. It’s not just the lyrics that influence what music we select at a given point, but also the rhythm, melody, harmony, volume, and intensity.
How is it that sound exerts such a powerful physiological response as to reduce anxiety and stress? Well, sound is not inert. Sound travels from the source, such as a musical device, to our ears, in the form of waves that travel slower than light waves. The sensation of loudness is influenced by the height and frequency of sound waves, with greater height and frequency corresponding to a louder perception of sound. Frequency is measured in hertz, and 20 Hz means that tone or beat vibrates 20 times every second. We can typically hear sounds that are between 20 and 20,000 hertz.
The sound wave hits our eardrum, making it vibrate and transmit this vibration deeper into our ear, through a fluid-filled tunnel that contains hair cells. The vibrations cause the fluid to move in waves, which then makes the hair cells move. This information from the hair cells is sent from the auditory nerve in the ear, to the brain, which can then decode it. If each ear hears a tone of a different frequency, then the difference between the two frequencies will be perceived by the brain. For example, if our right ear hears a 200 Hz tone, and our left ear a 210 Hz tone, then our brain will perceive this as a 10 Hz beat. This binaural beat is one method used by sound therapy.
Sound therapy uses low frequencies that fall in the alpha-theta-gamma-delta range, which corresponds to the brainwave frequencies that vibrate in the lower range. To put this into perspective, let’s think for a moment about the sleep cycle. When we’re awake and fully conscious and alert, the frequency of our brain waves is between 14-30 Hz, which are called beta waves. When we begin to fall asleep and dissociate ourselves from the external environment, our brain starts to drift into a calm state, characteristic of alpha waves, which range from about 8 to 12 Hz. Waves in this frequency range can stimulate production of serotonin, the chemical that anti-depressants like SSRIs are responsible for increasing. There is also evidence for enhanced memory, reductions in cortisol, the major stress hormone, and emotional stability. Creative flow states may also be enhanced, and actually, when the brain of Albert Einstein was analyzed using an EEG, it showed he produced consistent alpha-band activity while solving complex mathematical tasks. Once we get into even deeper sleep, we delve into even lower vibrational frequencies, say between 4-8 Hz, called theta brainwaves. These brain waves are present during deep relaxation, when we are dreaming during REM sleep. It is believed that this mental state allows us to reach our subconscious.
Now let’s switch gears and explore how brain waves are associated with our health, and how sound therapy may help myriad problems. Let’s take drug addiction as our first example. Research has demonstrated that detoxified alcoholic patients have increased beta activity and a decrease in both alpha and theta, meaning they’re more in an alert phase. In the early stage of individuals abstinent from heroin, there has been reported deficiency in alpha activity, compared to healthy controls. In individuals who have been abstinent from cocaine for a long period of time, there is reduced activity in theta and delta waves, which are of the lowest frequency. In delta wave state, we are in our deep dreamless sleep. We experience cortisol reduction, immune boosting, and release of beta endorphins, which are responsible for suppressing pain. Some of the beneficial effects of low frequency sound therapy with drug addiction is believed to be as a result of this increase in beta endorphins.
Lower frequency brain waves can also stimulate the release of nitric oxide, which signals smooth muscles to relax, so our blood vessels dilate and increase blood flow. Release of nitric oxide positively affects pain transmission and control, which some scientists believe helps to modify our relationship to pain. In a 2015 study of patients suffering with fibromyalgia, low-frequency sound stimulation was delivered twice a week for five weeks. The medication dose was reduced in about 74% of patients and completely discontinued in 26%. A majority of these patients were able to significantly increase the amount of time they spent sitting and standing without pain. Although it wasn’t determined whether this was due to nitric oxide or beta endorphin increase, it’s consistent with reported beneficial effects of using low frequency sound stimulation.
The idea of accessing these desired brain wave states using sound is very intriguing. There is an optimal range of frequencies that can open the gateway for learning and memory, allowing one to change unwanted subconscious behaviors. This range can increase suggestibility, or the quality of being inclined to accept and act on the suggestions of others. Therapy can make great use of this tactic, and if you’re interested in learning more about the use of sound healing, stay tuned for the 2nd episode of this 2-part podcast, where I will speak with Alexander Tuttle about his private practice using sound healing for enhanced wellbeing. Please visit jphmpdirect.com for my previous blog posts and podcast episodes. And while you’re there, consider joining our community to help advance public health by subscribing to our newsletter.
Thank you for listening to the 1st episode of this 2-part podcast. Next time, I will speak with Alexander Tuttle, musician and sound therapist on the healing properties of sound to alleviate chronic pain, anxiety, stress, and drug addiction.
Related reading in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice:*
- When Does Mental Health Become Public Health?
- Integrating Public Health and Health Care Strategies to Address the Opioid Epidemic: The Oregon Health Authority’s Opioid Initiative
- Why Don’t Hospitals Prioritize Substance Abuse in Their Community Benefit Programming?
- Embedding a Social Work–Led Behavioral Health Program in a Primary Care System: A 2012-2018 Case Study
*Some articles may require subscription to view.
Elena Vidrascu, MSc, recently graduated from Wake Forest University with her MSc in Physiology and Pharmacology. Her primary field of interest is substance abuse, with goals to disseminate information to the public, including addicts and those in recovery, and to influence policy change to push for more integrative approaches towards prevention and treatment. In her spare time, she enjoys playing tennis, hiking, doing puzzles, and cuddling with her kitten Maple.
Read all columns in this series:
- Screen Time and Content Might Increase Youth’s Risk to Future Substance Abuse, Part II
- Screen Time and Content Might Increase Youth’s Risk to Future Substance Abuse, Part I
- The Opioid Epidemic: Where Do the Numbers Stand and Where Can We Focus Our Efforts? A Video and Interview
- Could a Dose a Day of Meaningful Social Interactions Help Keep Drug Addiction Away?
- Mike Connors on Treating Youth & Young Adults Struggling with Substance Abuse and Addiction