Can Music Improve Your MS Symptoms?

Jamie Tripp Utitus
Written by
Jamie Tripp Utitus

Yes, I have multiple sclerosis. Yes, I am a slave to appointments and therapies, and being thrust into closed MRIS. I’m also a grown up and somewhat set in my ways. Some therapies just don’t pique my interest, therefore they’re incredibly difficult to engage with. So, when my acupuncturist heard that I played the bass growing up she brought her very own bass to my next appointment. She then asked if I’d just hold onto it, and placed it near my desk. The bass begged me to pick it up, as she knew it would. She also knew it would help me cognitively. Thanks to her, I’ve played every day since.

We are in an era of high population when it comes to aging, so how we ward off neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, and even the cognitive impairment that comes with MS, is becoming a big concern. The medical community is now studying the impact playing a musical instrument can have on such impairments. One study took 127 sets of twins who had full clinical, medical work ups beforehand and then had one twin take up an instrument. The tests showed significant differences in the onset of neurodegenerative disease between the twin who played an instrument and the one who did not. Those who took up an instrument were significantly less likely to develop dementia.

I was particularly taken with Jenny Asparro’s article, “Music Therapy in Multiple Sclerosis.” Maybe I was just stunned that someone took so much time, and devoted their life, to understanding how music can help those with MS. After reading her findings, I better understood how we can verbalize, depression and anxiety. Music can help us across the board.

For me, memory and memory loss play a large roll in my MS journey, so I was particularly interested in learning that music requires so many parts of the brain, it’s almost impossible for us to FORGET how to play it. It is a free action, of sorts, that actually eliminates the upheaval of overwhelming cognitive action. Asparro assures us that, “It is almost impossible to lose the ability to process music because, unlike speech, it involves many areas of the brain.” That’s pretty awesome!

Here are the benefits:

Coordination and Concentration- the simple task of moving our bodies throughout the day keeps us active and healthier. The task of learning to move your body to a repetitive melodic rhythm can lead us toward better coordination and concentration. For me, if I’d lose the note, I’d remember the sound, and my hands could find the note on the bass. From there, I would just chase the melody. Something about my hands, how agile and coordinated they were, have begun to change. Also, as Asparro notes in her findings, this repetitive movement in our bodies helps us with endurance, and even helps to level our walking gait.

Memory – Okay, so we can’t remember a list of daily tasks. But learning an instrument has shown that learning to play remains intact, and ultimately benefits our overall ability to remember anything.

Depression/Anxiety-This is not meant to offend, but I didn’t find it healthy doing certain therapies with people in their 80’s and 90’s. I am at a different place in my life, as well as in my disease, than that age group of people. I still like to consider myself young. When I am there, I will own it. I just wasn’t ready to be put into a therapy group with seniors. BUT, playing the bass makes me feel “cool” and young again. My overall depression, perhaps pessimistic outlook, has changed. So I personally understand how and why this has proven to be true in her studies. The level gait walking, not so much.

Verbal Communications- Words that are hard to speak are much more easily communicated through music. Who would have thought? In addition to this, Asparro found music also helped breathing, pronunciation and the timing we need for well-developed speech.

There are a slew of other benefits from music therapy for those with disabilities. Like Jenny noticed, those who could not kick a ball in exercise class, COULD if music was playing. AND, its overwhelming calming benefits are just as important for those who are slowly getting worse. We need calm. We need reprieve. We need music! If anyone wants to start a band, I’m open. We always need more cowbell!

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