Heartbeat art for health 1012

Mended Hearts called me the other day to ask if I could talk at their upcoming Zoom meeting. Mended Hearts offers support for people who have had heart surgery. This triggered my idea for my column this month: How therapeutic music helps the heart.

Adele Jacobsen column sig 2020

Adele Jacobson/Music in Medicine

I’m going to throw a ten dollar word at you: entrainment. I’d never heard of this word before training as a therapeutic musician. But now that word is central to much of the music I play in medical facilities. And it is certainly central to controlling and stabilizing the heart.

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Probably the best synonym for entrainment is synchronization. Music has the power to make the body synchronize its actions to the tempo and beat being played.

 If you can tolerate a few more $10 words, I’ll explain how this happens: The vagus nerve travels to most of the organs in the body cavity. After it leaves the brain, heading south, it swings by the ears. Here, the musical impulse is picked up by the vagus and transmitted to organs throughout the body.  The vagus nerve effects so many functions of the body it should be given the Nobel Prize in Medicine. But alas, it just chugs along, silently making our bodies work smoothly.

I can remember the name of it because I think of vagrant – one who wanders around. Indeed, “vagus” in Latin means wandering. And that is what the vagus nerve does, wandering from the brain to the larynx and throat, lungs, heart, digestive tract and more.

The heart is the perfect organ to show the impact of music with a steady beat. The vagus nerve delivers this steady beat to the heart, and like an obedient child, the heart falls in line with it. You want to reduce the heartbeat? Slow the tempo of the music. Do you need to speed up the heartbeat? Simply play faster 

The trick for stabilizing a heartbeat or controlling it, is to play very steady music. Atrial fibrillation (A fib)  is when the heart is beating irregularly. We don’t want to induce this by playing synchopated or what I call topsy-turvy , humpty dumpty music. Keep it steady ... steady ... steady and the heart will respond. 

That is not to say that there isn’t a place for synchopated music. Just don’t play it to heart patients. But for other patients who have healthy hearts, irregular tempos are great for anxiety and many other issues. 

I wish I had a recent story to tell you about the effectiveness of music in helping the heart, but I don’t. As we all know, the hospitals have been struggling to stay on top of the influx of COVID patients. They have limited visiting of patients by family and friends, and most in-room visits by volunteers have come to a halt.

Adele Jacobson heads the nonprofit organization Music in Medicine. For more information about the group and its mission, email musicbedside@gmail.com. The website is musicinmedicinecitrus.org.

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