Paul Tunick, MD, and Victoria Leavitt, a clinical neuropsychologist at ColumbiaDoctors, have a unique patient-practitioner relationship.
Every Friday, Tunick, who lives with multiple sclerosis (MS), and Leavitt get together for a jam session. Tunick strums the guitar and Leavitt plays the cello.
Through their mutual love of music, the pair stumbled upon a way for Tunick to manage some of the debilitating side effects of MS.
When Tunick first came to Leavitt’s office, he had severe cognitive impairment across multiple domains due to MS. He was also struggling with severe depression, fatigue, and progressive physical disability that limited his ability to function day to day.
But, little by little, something magical began to happen: Tunick felt relief from his MS symptoms by playing music.
Music is helping people with MS manage symptoms
Leavitt and Tunick recently published an article in the Journal of American Medical Association Neurology about their bluegrass guitar and classical cello mix. In it, they share how music as therapy is changing Tunick’s life by helping him reconnect with something he loves: playing his guitar.
And they’re not alone in finding relief in music. Therapists and doctors are using music as part of an overall treatment plan to manage MS symptoms. Which leaves many to ask: How does this connection between music and treating MS symptoms work?
“Music as a therapeutic activity has the advantage of being multidimensional: It brings together motor skills, cognitive skills, creativity, attention/focus, social interaction, and multimodal sensory processing,” explains Leavitt.
It’s difficult to think of a more “holistic” brain exercise than playing music. Beyond that, Leavitt says for most people it’s also enjoyable, rewarding, and fun.
Caitlin Hyatt, a neurologic music therapist, says the three areas that she focuses on during treatment for people with MS are movement, speech and language, and cognition.
“One of the most researched areas is the use of auditory cues for gait training; we call this intervention Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation, which focuses on the use of a rhythmic stimulus while walking to improve any gait disturbances in someone who has MS,” she explains.
“Music, especially rhythm, stimulates multiple areas of the brain that are responsible for the timing of movements, and can provide the appropriate timing when there’s been damage to a particular part of the brain,” she adds.
Hyatt says the results of this intervention can help people with MS improve speed, stride length, balance, and more.
You can also apply this principle to weakness in motor skills. “If someone with MS presents with poor coordination of their upper extremities, we can use rhythm and music to improve the timing of these movements,” she explains.
At MedRhythms, where Hyatt’s a lead therapist, the team often uses instruments in their sessions, such as the piano, to address selective finger dexterity or fine motor strength. “Instruments are great because they provide auditory feedback to our clients and they’re motivating to play,” she explains.
Music as therapy is changing lives
Dan and Jennifer Digmann, a husband and wife team who both have MS, experience the healing power of music every day. While they know that music isn’t going to cure them, they do say it definitely helps with managing the impact of MS.
The Digmanns use music therapy to help cope with and overcome the challenges associated with MS.
“Through its melodies, beats, and lyrics, music has the power to motivate, comfort, inspire, energize, release anger and emotional pain, and cheer you up all at the same time,” the Digmanns explain.
For 21-year-old college student and cheerleading captain of the University of Miami cheerleading team Sidney Sterling, managing stress levels is crucial when it comes to MS.
Diagnosed at age 16, Sterling lives a very active lifestyle despite having MS and credits music as one of the therapies that help her manage stress.
“Stress is one the most prevalent causes for flare-ups and one of the sneakiest,” explains Sterling. And balancing life, family, friends, school, and practice can get extremely stressful.
“Before tests or big games, I love listening to music to calm me down; music helps me channel good vibes and energy, and it gives me something else to focus on,” she adds. “Through music, I can channel a positive memory or just let loose and sing along.”
How you can begin your musical journey
If you’re interested in finding out more about using music therapy to help with the daily struggles of MS, Leavitt recommends talking with your clinical care team about including music therapy in your overall treatment plan.
Beyond the formal experience of musical therapy in a clinical setting, she also encourages patients to think creatively and be proactive.
“There are so many ways to reach out and find opportunities in the world,” says Leavitt.
That’s the beauty of music therapy: It doesn’t have to involve a formal program.
“You can invite friends over for an informal drum circle and see what develops or join the choir at church,” she says. “Music is accessible to everyone, and there are so many ways to bring it into our lives to benefit us on multiple levels,” adds Leavitt.
And that’s precisely how the Digmanns feel. “Sometimes you don’t need a specific reason to turn to music. The music just provides you an escape from the challenges you’re facing, and that’s very therapeutic.”
Sara Lindberg, BS, M.Ed, is a freelance health and fitness writer. She holds a bachelor’s in exercise science and a master’s degree in counseling. She’s spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind-body connection, with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impacts our physical fitness and health.