Hearing a distant train whistle in the evening sends me straight to sleep. Maybe because it’s a sound I heard as a child when I was falling asleep – in the house where I grew up in Montreal, and in the mountain cottage where my family sometimes vacationed – it brings back feelings of comfort.

From soft background music to the clanging of machines, sounds can evoke emotional and physiological responses that can affect pain and other arthritis symptoms. Soothing sounds can bring peaceful feelings, which are helpful in managing pain. The anxiety that can come with harsh sounds, however, can exacerbate symptoms.

Like smells and tastes, sounds can stir emotions particular to an individual’s experience, like the train whistle for me. Others are universal, like sounds of nature – waves crashing, crickets chirping, frogs “singing” after a rain. Researchers in Australia are even studying whether sounds of streams can soothe stressed people in the emergency room.

Other sounds spark negative emotions, through the same learning and association mechanisms that happen with positive emotions, sometimes leading to a stress response. A typical trigger for soldiers returning from war is the sound of a truck backfiring, which sounds like gunfire.

Very loud noises are not only triggers of the brain’s stress response, they also can damage the eardrum and inner ear and cause tinnitus – a constant buzzing in the ear. A friend with tinnitus records fountains and plays them back to reduce the discomfort of the buzzing she always hears. Health care design architects are now designing and retrofitting hospitals to reduce stress brought about by loud noise. Studies in Sweden have shown that simply replacing ceiling tiles in intensive care units with noise-absorbing tiles provides better sleep quality and reduces stress in both patients and staff.

Music can have the same effect. Psychophysiologist and professional jazz musician Julian Thayer found that, by changing the musical score in a video, he could change people’s heart rhythms and emotional responses from stressed to relaxed.

Music therapy employs these principles to reduce pain. Studies show listening to music has a beneficial effect for many conditions, including arthritis. Music therapy has been used to assist patients in rehabilitation and to reduce pain and stiffness in osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Another study showed the amount of post-surgery pain medication can be measurably reduced in people listening to music without harming the individual. Many of these studies are small, and the effects are modest compared with those of medications, but they’re real. And since music has no ill side effects, there is no downside to adding pleasant sounds to your treatment regime.

Try to identify sounds and music that calm you. You can create your own healing soundtrack to help soothe your nerves and maybe even lessen some of your pain and stiffness. Just don’t turn up the volume too loud – especially if you’re wearing earbuds!


Esther M. Sternberg, MD, rheumatologist and researcher, is the author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being (2009, Harvard University Press).