Medical professionals are using a new tool in the fight against COVID-19: music.
Kansas City’s Saint Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute, a 100,000-square-foot, 60-bed facility, has been using music for several years in coordination with other treatments for patients recovering from stroke, brain, spine, cardiovascular, trauma, pulmonary and orthopedic conditions. COVID-19 patients, many of whom have significant mobility impairment after months of being immobilized in an ICU bed, are now among this group.
The institute’s music therapy program serves as an important adjunct to psychosocial and neurological rehabilitation for people with injuries that affect their mobility. St. Luke’s music therapists use music – listening to music, making music or both – to help patients regain their independence and reach optimal functioning.
St. Luke’s cardiologist Tony Zink, MD, told KMBC-9 that he used his own experience of recovery from traumatic brain injury several years ago as impetus to start the program.
“I had to learn to use my left hand again, as well as walk and talk and do it all over again.”
The primary goal at the institute is to help all patients regain function and independence by using rhythm and beats to help the body regain natural movement. They strum guitars, tap tambourines and keep time with chimes, harmonizing their way to recovery.
Offered weekly as well as on an individual basis, the program has proven to be successful, with nearly eight out of 10 patients discharged to home, a rate much higher than average.
Zink said his healing musical tool of choice was the piano, which he started playing during rehab.
“Playing left-handed things helped my brain learn to make my hand do what it wanted to do, without having to think too much about it,” he said.
How music is used in neuro-rehabilitation
The institute’s music therapy, which could be formally referred to as a neurologic music therapy (NMT) program, is simply another example of putting research into real-life practice.
Scientists have found that music helps different conditions in different ways. NMT therapy leverages how the brain processes and perceives music to improve non-musical outcomes in cognition, speech and mobility. For example, when used to treat cognitive impairment such as attention, arousal, auditory perception, spatial neglect, executive functioning and memory, music stimulates and reorganizes the brain to better enable synchronicity of parallel brain systems.
Regarding speech neurorehabilitation, speech and singing share the same neural systems, which is why NMT – singing in particular – may improve speech and breathing disorders.
Rhythm is the key component of NMT’s effect on mobility as well as gross and fine motor skills. NMT therapists will use auditory rhythm and spatial placement of musical instruments to facilitate the synchronization of brain waves, which improves motor control. For example, emerging research suggests that music and rhythm-based therapies improve gait impairment, as well as motor symptoms and non-motor symptoms in Parkinson’s disease (PD) and other movement disorders.
So, in the example of Zink and his piano, the structured time, tempo and rhythm of the piano music – combined with the piano’s spatial configuration – helped refocus Zink’s cognitive attention back to his neglected left side.
In addition, new research also asserts that music – rhythm-making in particular – has a significant impact on fine motor skills. For example, strumming a guitar helps to rebuild damaged neurological pathways and increases hand dexterity, strength and range of motion—all of which serve to improve activities of daily living. Rhythm-making also improves rhythm-based movements such as walking, breathing and speech. The team at St. Luke’s are certainly seeing these benefits firsthand, said Katie Fortino, a music therapist.
“The way you walk has rhythm. Your breathing is rhythmic, and so it’s very natural to use music to get back to things that were working,” she said.
How to find a music therapy program near you
NMT is a rapidly growing field, so certified NMT therapists are becoming increasingly available. An NMT therapist is highly trained in specialized areas. The therapist must have completed the International Training in Neurologic Music Therapy through The Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy. In addition to this, the Academy recommends the NMT therapist meet some specific requirements.
For those looking for an NMT therapist, the Academy provides a roster of Academy Affiliates by name and location.