EMERGENCIES
June 13, 2013

iPods in the ICU

Hospitals are noisy. Listening to music — or noise-canceling headphones — can ease patients' anxiety.

Whether it's Bach, Bon Jovi, Brubeck, or The Black-Eyed Peas, music is good for the soul. It's so good for us, in fact, that it may become part of treatment in intensive care units around the country. Patients who were on ventilators required less sedation and were less anxious when they were allowed to listen to music they chose.

Though studied far less often than drug treatments, music has demonstrated healing potential in varied settings, including in studies on stroke recovery, cancer, and heart health.

ICU patients who listened to CDs showed a 36% reduction in self-reported anxiety and needed 38% fewer sedative doses, about two fewer doses a day.

Being placed on a ventilator can be a frightening experience, which is one reason that ventilator patients usually receive sedatives. But they fare better when sedative doses are low. And patients in the ICU have very little control over their daily routine. Allowing them to choose the time of day they can listen to music, as well as the music itself, is one way to give them some control over their hospital life.

In a five-day experiment, 126 patients at five hospitals in the Minneapolis area who had been placed on a ventilator due to respiratory failure were allowed to listen to CDs through headphones whenever they liked. Another group of 125 ICU patients did not have access to music.

The patients who listened to music were given CDs based on their musical preferences, since one person's favorite music can be torture to the uninitiated. They showed a 36% reduction in self-reported anxiety and needed 38% fewer sedative doses, about two fewer doses a day, compared to patients who didn't listen to music.

Currently, iPods and MP3 players are permitted in some hospital intensive care units and forbidden in others. This study suggests that they could do patients a lot of good.

As soothing as music may be, blocking or reducing the sounds of the hospital may also play a role in the benefits researchers saw. The study also looked at the effect on ICU ventilator patients of wearing noise-cancelling headphones. 122 patients were given noise-cancelling headphones and allowed to wear them whenever they chose. They fared nearly as well as the music listeners, showing similar reductions in anxiety and in total sedative intensity required.

Hospitals are noisy places and intensive care units are among the noisiest places in the hospital. Allowing patients to block out some of that noise can add substantially to their peace of mind, as well as helping them sleep at night. And headphones are a lot less expensive than hiring a music therapist is.

The study appears online in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association.
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