Research Snapshot: U of M Investigators Find Listening to Music Helps Ease Anxiety, Reduces Medication Use in ICU

Surrounded by beeping, bustling, monitors and machines that help a patient breathe; the intensive care unit (ICU) at a hospital isn’t exactly what you would call a stress-free environment. Worries proliferate easily for ICU patients who are often awake but cannot speak or act independently after having experienced anything from a severe car accident to open-heart surgery.

As they focus on recovery and hospitalization outcomes, patients in the ICU may soon be able to put some of their worries to bed thanks to new University of Minnesota research.

recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found music reduces anxiety for individuals who are critically ill and need assistance from a mechanical ventilator to breathe. Listening to music was also found to reduce the amount of medication nurses gave patients to help calm them.

“This study demonstrates the benefits of tailored music as an integrative, holistic intervention for critically ill, mechanically ventilated patients,” said Linda Chlan, Ph.D., R.N, F.A.A.N., a professor now in the College of Nursing at The Ohio State University who led the study while serving as an associate professor in the University of Minnesota School of Nursing.

The U of M study examined patients in 12 different ICUs in five Minneapolis-St. Paul area hospitals. Patients selected their preferred music by running through a “yes” or “no” checklist with music therapist and study co-investigator Annie Heiderscheit, Ph.D., a faculty research fellow with the university’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.

During the average five to six day ICU stay, patients listened to their chosen music via a CD player and noise-cancellation headphones for an average of 80 minutes per day. Patients were free to chose how frequently to listen to the music and how long to wear the headphones. The activity was known as a “patient-directed music intervention”.

By the fifth day in the ICU, patients who listened to music received 37 percent less sedative medication and their anxiety levels were 19% lower than their peers without music.

A second group of patients enrolled in the study simply wore noise-cancellation headphones without music. These patients experienced minor benefits including a small reduction in sedatives administered.

“The music intervention helped patients in two ways,” said Craig Weinert, M.D., M.P.H., study co-author and associate professor of medicine in the University of Minnesota Medical School. “It allowed a patient to choose what to listen to, which helped empower the patient in a time where he or she needs help to do almost anything. It also introduced the therapeutic effects of music which are known in other circumstances to help reduce anxiety.”

Additionally, Weinert surmises a patient’s family members could help perform the musical intervention in an existing ICU environment.

“The bottom line is that this is a low-cost, simple and side-effect free way to use less sedative medication and reduce anxiety in mechanically-ventilated patients,” said Weinert.

So next time you’re headed to visit your loved one in the ICU, it might not be a bad idea to bring along that MP3 player or iPod.

University of Minnesota collaborators from across the health sciences who served as co-authors of this study in addition to Chlan, Weinert and Heiderscheit, included Mary Fran Tracy, Ph.D., R.N., an adjunct associate professor of medicine; Debra Skaar, Pharm.D., an associate professor in the College of Pharmacy; graduate student Jill Guttormson, Ph.D., R.N.; and Kay Savik, a senior research fellow in the School of Nursing.