Music Therapy for Substance Abuse Disorders? What the Science Has to Say (So far)

Substance abuse disorders are a serious problem in the United States.

According to recent estimates, “12-months prevalence rates for addictions in 2014 were 3.0% for alcohol and 1.9% for illicit drugs.” What is more, “use and misuse of alcohol and drugs are associated with a variety of health, social, and economic disadvantages for the users themselves and others.”

So, with substance abuse disorders a clear problem in this country, what treatment options are there for individuals?

To begin, it remains disheartening that, according to a recent study, only about 10% of individuals with a substance abuse disorder receive help. Additionally, some treatment options include “body detoxification, pharmaceutical, psychosocial, and psychotherapeutic treatment, and recovery management.” Finally, “the treatment completion rates are low (i.e., 47% in the USA in 2006) and the relapse rates are high (40–60%).” Researchers conclude that “there is still need to improve addiction treatment.”

However, in a recent study published in the journal PLoS One, one type of treatment option may be music therapy. Defined by the authors, music therapy is a “clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.”

According to research, “[c]ompared to commonly used verbal psychological therapies, [music therapy] provide different opportunities for self-expression, cooperative group activity, imagination, and synchronized sensorimotor experience.” Moreover, the authors go on to say: “In addition to that, there is evidence of beneficial impact of [music therapy] on mood, stress, self-esteem, motivation, emotional expression, and social cohesion.”

Put simply, there are many benefits for individuals who seek out this type of non-mainstream treatment.

Researchers of the abovementioned study conducting a meta-analysis in order to assess the effectiveness of music therapy throughout the scientific literature. The researchers selected 34 quantitative and six qualitative studies to conduct their study.

What they found was interesting.

The researchers conclude: “Previous reviews highlighted the need for more randomized controlled trials (RCTs) regarding long-term outcomes like maintenance of sobriety.” Additionally, they write: “[I]t is important to be aware that music can also trigger relapse (e.g. if the music is associated with substance abuse), and that, therefore, music has to be used with great care in SUD patients.” Finally, although it appears there are benefits to music therapy, those who seek out such treatment must do so by professional music therapists.

That said, however, music in general is a powerful emotional and psychological tool that – generally speaking – tends to have an impact on listeners. Although this is true, whether or not music therapy remains a good intervention for substance abuse disorders is still being looked at in detail by researchers.

HohmannL, Bradt J, Stegemann T, Koelsch S (2017) Effects of music therapy and music-based interventions in the treatment of substance use disorders: A systematic review. PLoS ONE 12(11):e0187363. 10.1371/journal.pone.0187363

Brooke Lamberti

Brooke Lamberti is a content writer based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Marywood University, and has prior career experience working in social work and domestic violence advocacy. She has a passion for writing and helping others.

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