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The surprising physical power of your favorite playlist
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A research study on hospitalized children found that favorite songs can be as effective as Advil in reducing pain. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Health researchers recently discovered an unexpected side effect of listening to your favorite songs: pain relief.

In a study of children undergoing major surgical operations, published earlier this year in Pediatric Surgery International (paywall), scientists determined tuning in to a treasured playlist significantly decreased postsurgical pain.

"Audio therapy is an exciting opportunity and should be considered by hospitals as an important strategy to minimize pain," said study senior author Santhanam Suresh in a press release. "This is inexpensive and doesn't have any side effects."

The risk-free nature of handing a hospitalized child an iPod was one of the study's greatest strengths because efforts to address pain in young patients are fraught with complications, The Huffington Post reported.

"Most surgery-strength painkillers aren't made with children in mind, and, in fact, can even cause kids to have breathing problems," the article noted. "To play it safe, doctors limit painkiller dosage, but this leaves children in serious pain after their surgery."

The 56 participating patients, who were between 9 and 14 years old, were split into three groups: members of the first group heard songs by artists like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift; the second group tuned into audiobooks like "James and the Giant Peach"; and the third put on noise canceling headphones.

Researchers played the assigned sounds for 30 minutes, and then assessed a patient's pain level, the study noted.

"After a 30-minute session, the children who listened to music or a book reduced their pain burden by 1 point on a 10-point scale compared to the children who listened to silence," NPR reported. "That might not sound like much, but (study co-author) Sunitha Suresh says it's the equivalent of taking an over-the-counter pain medication like Advil or Tylenol."

As Santhanam Suresh noted in the press release, songs or stories can be powerful pain relievers because they occupy the brain's attention.

"The idea is, if you don't think about it, maybe you won't experience it as much," he said. "We are trying to cheat the brain a little bit. We are trying to refocus mental channels on to something else."

Music's ability to influence how the brain works means the health benefits of a well-crafted playlist aren't limited to young listeners.

Researchers have also explored the benefits of music therapy for dementia sufferers, as Dr. Sanjay Gupta noted in a video for CNN this week.

He profiled participants in a program called "Music and Memory," which gives nursing home patients iPods loaded with their favorite songs. The music has been shown to reawaken parts of the brain affected by Alzheimer's disease, helping patients remember times they've listened to the songs in their past.

"Music seems to rekindle something," Gupta said, as footage of an elderly woman in a wheelchair singing along to a Johnny Cash song played.