Music is like exercise. What you do for exercise doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you do it. And what you listen to doesn’t matter, as long as you listen.

Music can decrease the pain, depression and disability that commonly occur among people with osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other noncancerous types of chronic pain, according to research conducted at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio and reported in the Journal of Advanced Nursing.

People who listened to music for one hour a day for one week – whether they picked the tunes themselves or researchers provided them – felt more empowered and reported less pain, depression and disability than those who did not listen to music. Average pain ratings among people who listened to music fell by about 20 percent, whereas pain among nonlisteners actually increased.

Research published in the March 2012 issue of Clinical Rheumatology further points to the therapeutic benefits of music. Study researchers assessed the impact of recorded music on patients undergoing joint lavage for knee osteoarthritis. They found that those who listened to music during the procedure had less pain and anxiety and lower heart rates that those who did not.

Don't have your IPod or radio handy? Try singing instead. Researchers reporting in the March 2011 issue of Arthritis Care & Research found that singing before joint replacement surgery helped calm a patient and ease her blood pressure prior to the operation.

Your Brain's Response to Pain

Your brain responds to the music you hear, says osteopathic physician Steven Stanos, medical director, Chronic Pain Care Center at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

“We think music stimulates areas of the brain that are responsible for releasing the body’s own painkillers,” he says. “Music stimulates the periaqueductal gray (PAG) area in the mid-brain, which is where we have our own opioid system.”

Imaging studies have shown that music can stimulate the brain’s pleasure center, increasing levels of the brain chemicals dopamine, which produces feelings of enjoyment, and substance P, which inhibits pain. And there is evidence from brain scans that music can block the area of the brain called the amygdala that is responsible for negative emotions such as stress, says Dr. Stanos.

There is no reason not to take time to listen to music. “It is distracting, pleasurable and has no side effects,” Dr. Stanos says. “People can use it to self-medicate just like they do with deep breathing or relaxation.