Beating pain: Research by physical therapy and music departments show that drumming may ease chronic pain

For Keith Rider, a study on drums and chronic pain at UNG provided a welcome distraction from the pain he has carried for years. For 10 weeks, the Lumpkin County resident participated in a weekly 45-minute drum circle aimed at decreasing chronic pain.

“It just gets your mind off everything because you’re concentrating on that moment,” Rider said.

That was part of the goal for Dr. Don Walsh, associate professor of physical therapy and principal investigator on a $2,850 Move Together Pro Bono Incubator grant used to purchase the drums. He and Dr. Susan Klappa, interim head of the Department of Physical Therapy at UNG, hatched the idea when Klappa served as a visiting professor at UNG before joining the university full time in spring 2019.

Steven Walker, limited-term faculty and adjunct professor of percussion at UNG, enjoyed facilitating the weekly drum circles to teach participants rhythms from different parts of the world.

“It is a lot of fun because you get to see them discover things about themselves by playing music,” Walker said. “There’s a sense of wonder again because they’re out of their comfort zones.”

The study found that four of the seven participants decreased their pain medicine to zero, four reported an increased ability to do activities they previously felt limited in due to pain, and six of seven reported decreased depression scores.

Music faculty member Steven Walker led drum circles for 10 weeks as part of research on a link between drumming and managing chronic pain.
Two of Walsh’s Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) students, Grace Goodfellow and Abby Young, recorded information about participants each week. The information included perceived exertion and heart rate; pain location and intensity; assessment of mood; identification of functional limitations and current medications due to pain and sound qualities, like frequency and decibel levels, produced by the actual drumming.

Walsh, who oversees UNG’s pro bono Student-led Therapy and Rehab (STAR) Clinic, was partially inspired by the STAR Clinic’s patients, including Rider.

“We can often get patients’ pain lowered after or during a session,” Walsh said. “How do you maintain that relief?”

One of the stories Walsh and Klappa most enjoy is of a woman who took part in the study and could only walk a block before the drum circles. Now she can walk a mile.

Klappa said the communal aspect was important in the research.

“You create something that’s bigger than yourself,” Klappa said. “And you begin to look outside of your pain into more of an empowerment.”

The DPT students thrived on their role in the research.

“The participants have been great to get to know and learn their story,” Young said, adding the weekly check ins were crucial. “That’s what physical therapy is: treating patients long term.”

Two people with drum sticks
The research was a collaboration between the physical therapy and music departments.
Goodfellow, a second-year DPT student, said the research made her feel more connected to the community. She is curious about the research’s implications.

“I’m excited to see where it goes,” Goodfellow said.

One of the biggest findings was how people’s avoidance of activities for fear of being hurt was reduced.

“Fear avoidance was dismantled, not because we told people it should be, but because they discovered it themselves,” Walsh said.

He and Klappa are hopeful they can use the drums to expand on their chronic pain research and perhaps look at drumming’s effect on mental health.