Music therapy in the ED: Helping kids deal with painful procedures
By Dorothy L. Tengler

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In 2011, 1 in 5 people reported visiting the emergency department at least once in the past year with reported use highest among children under age 6 (24 percent). Imagine how scary it is for young children to process the activities in a busy ED, especially in view of the critical injuries crashing through the ED doors, not to mention the kids' own injuries.


Do you think music helps produce endorphins for kids who need procedures in the ED?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

Parents sit with them in this environment, providing — if they can — some semblance of comfort and reassurance. That said, what would help these traumatized youngsters deal with whatever uncomfortable or downright painful procedures they might be facing in an emergency setting?

Research has shown that in the womb, a fetus can process musical sounds at 20 weeks, so it is not surprising that as early as birth, infants are comforted by music. In fact, Dr. Alexandra Lamont from the Music Research Group at Keele University's School of Psychology in the U.K. has demonstrated how 1-year-olds recognize music they were exposed to up to three months before birth. So, what does all this have to do with pediatric emergencies?

A recent Canadian study suggests music may help distract children who need to undergo painful procedures in the ED. The study included 42 children ages 3 to 11 years who were undergoing placement of an intravenous line. Half underwent the procedure without music, and half heard music while the IV line was being placed.

The children were asked to assess their pain using a series of photographs showing the faces in varying degrees of pain (The Observational Scale of Behavioral Distress-Revised). The assessments were taken before the procedure, after the first attempt to insert the IV line and again after the procedures were completed. The music was chosen by a music therapist.

The children's assessment of their pain levels went up in children who didn't listen to music compared with those who listened to music. Pain scores among children in the standard care group increased by two points while they remained the same in the music group. These results were considered clinically significant.

The healthcare providers experienced benefits as well. They reported that it was easier to perform the IV procedure for children in the music group (76 percent very easy) versus the standard care group (38 percent very easy). In addition, the healthcare providers in this study felt more satisfied with the IV placement in the music group (86 percent very satisfied) compared with the standard care group (48 percent).

If nothing else, this study suggests the need for more investigation involving music as a means of helping kids handle painful and distressing situations, particularly in pediatric emergency settings.

Dorothy L. Tengler, MA, is a freelance medical writer/communication specialist with nearly 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical and medical communication industries. She has developed educational and medical marketing materials, including monographs, slide kits, health articles, primary and review manuscripts, and pharmaceutical sales training materials.