When patients listened to their own choice of music through headphones, the use of pain-killing analgesics was almost halved, and the level of sedative also dropped.
All the patients were operated on under local or regional anaesthetic and were therefore awake during the operation.
The huge increase in hospital day surgery in Britain means that more such operations are being carried out. One of the problems is that conscious patients can become overanxious as the surgeons operate and discuss surgical techniques and disease.
"When these patients undergo regional or local [anaesthetic] we can block the pain stimulus but we are still left with anxiety associated with being in the operating theatre," says Dr Zeev Kain, professor of anaesthesiology at Yale University. "Music is widely used to help people relax and divert attention from unpleasant things, so we set out to show that music chosen by a patient helps provide a familiar environment and will distract their attention."
In the research, reported in the current issue of the medical journal Anaesthesiology, patients were asked to bring with them a CD of their favourite music to enjoy. The amount of drugs they needed during the operation was then compared with another group of patients who had no music. Doctors found a 44 per cent reduction in requirement for an analgesic and a five-fold drop in demand for sedatives.
Just how the music works in reducing the perception of pain is not clear, but one theory is that the stimulus from the music somehow competes for the brain's attention with the pain signals and, for some of the time, wins.