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How Music Can Help with Healing After a Stroke

Posted 7/25/2018 by UHBlog

Worried about speech delays after a stroke? Talk to us to learn how music therapy can help your loved one.

Senior couple in earphones enjoying music

If you’ve ever found yourself inadvertently tapping your feet or smiling widely when a familiar song comes on, you know that music has an effect on your mood and body. But music also has the power to help people who have had a stroke or who have other neurological disorders recover movement and speech.

“Research has shown that different areas of the brain light up when listening to music or making music,” says music therapist Seneca Block, MA, MT-BC.

“Oftentimes, we see this phenomenon with individuals who are unable to speak or communicate well but who can still sing all the lyrics to their favorite song,” she says. “And this is regardless of the pathology of disease or any damage that has happened.”

Using music to help treat emotional and physical symptoms of disease can aid in stroke and neurological rehabilitation, Mr. Block says.

Music therapy uses singing to help people regain their speech. It also relies on a song’s rhythm to help patients improve their gait.

Melodic Intonation Therapy

The left hemisphere of the brain, for example, is responsible for language processing. So a person who experiences a stroke in the left part of the brain is more likely to experience language and speech loss.

But singing uses all parts of the brain. A treatment called melodic intonation therapy, which involves putting phrases to music, is particularly helpful to people who have had a stroke, Mr. Block says.

“Music can trigger all these little connections all over the brain," Ms. Block says. "So if you lose some parts that are associated with language, you can still sing a song that you remember.”

One example Mr. Block cites is that of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head in 2011.

Her brain was severely damaged, but through melodic intonation therapy, her speech function improved. To help her regain speech, therapists introduced new words and phrases to familiar melodies. Eventually, they took away the melody and Giffords was able to relearn the words, partly by working on syllable stressing.

“If you listen closely, especially in her earlier speeches, the way she speaks sounds sing-songy,” Mr. Block says. “But over time, her speeches sound less like a song.”

Keeping the Beat

While familiar melodies can help spur speech, a song’s beat and rhythm can help initiate movement in individuals with neurological damage.

“For instance, one of the biggest problems that Parkinson’s patients have is gait initiation,” Mr. Block says. “But given a steady beat, they can connect with the music directly and then walk to the rhythm of the music.”

Music, Mr. Block says, bypasses the frontal lobe, which is the part of the brain involved in thinking. Instead, it reaches the motor nerves in the cerebellum. That’s why people whose brains are impacted, such as people who have had a stroke, can many times move more easily with music.

“Music allows muscles to move without people thinking about it,” he says.

Standard Treatment

Music therapy is a standard treatment option for people who have had a stroke or brain trauma.

Music therapy often is used with traditional medical therapies, Mr. Block says. The goal of the treatment is to reinforce and redevelop neurologic connections.

However, not everyone responds the same way and in the same timeframe to therapy. Recovery from strokes and neurological conditions differ from person to person.

“It’s really on a case-by-case basis,” Mr. Block says. “Sometimes, a person can cue right into a song and be able to sing a lyric. Sometimes, it can take much longer. Look to Gabby Giffords; She lost an entire section of her brain, and she was able to regain functional speech. It just took months and months and months of work, but there is hope.”

Seneca Block, MA, MT-BC is a board certified music therapist at University Hospitals Connor Integrative Medicine Network. You can request an appointment with Mr. Block or any healthcare provider online.

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