Link between drumming and drop in chronic pain

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After years of chronic back and shoulder pain, Keith Rider says he doesn't hurt as much these days. The 56-year-old Lumpkin County, Georgia native says he hurt his back in a machine shop accident, which led to years of pain medication.

"Prescriptions, in the long run, it makes it worse," Rider says. "You get weaker, you get dependent on the medicine, and you think you've got to have it all the time."

So, when Rider heard about a University of North Georgia study to see if a drumming circle could help people with chronic pain, he was curious about it. A few months later, Rider says the drumming seems to be easing his pain.

"You can just close your eyes and disappear, be in your own little worlds, and listen to the drums," Rider says.  "You make your own rhythm."

Steven Walker, the University of North Georgia's Director of Percussion Studies, led the group of 7 volunteers, who came in for 10 hour-long drumming sessions.

"I always was careful to let the participants know, 'If you get lost, it's probably good, probably better, because it's going to make it more interesting," Walker says.

UNG Physical therapy professor Don Walsh and his colleague came up with this idea one night, while talking about the opioid crisis. So they got a small grant, bought the drums, and invited people struggling with chronic pain -- who were taking some type of pain reliever, to join the drumming group.

"I know doing this over 30 years as a physical therapist, if I just focus on the tissue part of the injury, you're missing a lot with chronic pain," Walsh says. "Because pain, at its very core, is perception.  So, it's the patient's perception of how they feel at that moment."

The researchers tracked the participants' heart rate, mental health, pain levels, how much medication they were taking and how well they felt they could physically function. And, after a few sessions, Walker says, people began to relax, and let go.

"It mellows it out, to me," Rider says, talking about of his pain.  "It takes my mind off of it, and it relaxes me.  Once the pain hits, the more you hurt, the more it intensifies. And it seems kind to just kind of calm me down a little bit."

The preliminary findings of the study, surprised them.

"We found that 3 out of the 7 reduced their medication to zero, by the end of the study, which was the 10th session," Walsh says.  "Two months later, 4 out of the 7 had reduced their medication need."

Maybe it was the group dynamic, or the movement, or something else, but Keith Rider says he's taking less ibuprofen.

"It actually works great," he says.  "It gets your mind off the pain."

And if they ever do another study, Rider wants in.