An estimated 1 billion people are affected by hypertension (high blood pressure) worldwide – uncontrolled hypertension can lead to complications such as heart attack or stroke. Those with the condition don’t usually show any signs or symptoms, and primary hypertension has no identifiable cause.
Hypertension can be treated with medication, but such drugs are expensive and have side effects. Therefore, effective non-pharmacological intervention is preferred, such as exercise and reducing salt consumption. Other methods involving relaxation and stress-relief techniques such as yoga and meditation have promise but also show inconsistent results. Slow breathing (less than 10 breaths per minute) is another potential alternative remedy, and device-guided slow breathing has particularly demonstrated in randomised clinical trials to reduce blood pressure.
In device-guided slow breathing, a musical track assists the user to breathe regularly and deeply by playing at the right tempo for the user’s breathing movements, which are monitored by a sensor. Daily 10-15 sessions of device-guided slow breathing can successfully lower blood pressure, and its use is recommended by the American Heart Association. Acquiring devices that monitor a patient’s breathing could be too expensive for hypertension patients. So, Ping et al. assessed whether simply using a CD and incorporating slow breathing along with the music could be a more affordable alternative to a potential non-pharmacological treatment option for hypertension.
The team recruited 80 hypertension patients for a randomised controlled trial involving two main groups: one where patients were trained to use a deep breathing technique while listening to the CD, the other group were simply told to listen to the CD as a relaxation technique with no deliberate prompt to practice deep breathing. The CD contained background music with no recognisable beat or rhythm which could have interfered with the patients’ breathing pattern. Both groups listened to the music for 15 minutes daily for 8 weeks.
There was a significant reduction in systolic, diastolic and mean arterial pressure for both groups (music + deep breathing & music only) after 8 weeks. Interestingly, there was no significant difference in systolic and diastolic blood pressure between the two groups after 8 weeks. These findings therefore suggest that listening to the music CD effectively lowered blood pressure, but simultaneously incorporating a trained deep breathing technique did not have any additional effect on blood pressure. The reduction in blood pressure seen in the group who listened to the music alone was a clinically meaningful reduction, using FDA standards.
The results obtained by Ping et al. suggest a more beneficial role for music listening than for deep breathing. Blood pressure reductions found in previous studies using device-guided slow breathing could have been primarily due to the music rather than the breathing. Music is widely known to have positive effects on mood, and previous findings indicate that calm and relaxing types of music (e.g. classical music) can help control blood pressure and help improve the quality of life for hypertension patients.
Findings demonstrated here and from previous studies show that music therapy could help control blood pressure in hypertension patients, but the cause-effect relationship is yet to be established. However, as music therapy would be a safe and cheap non-pharmacological alternative, more comprehensive studies should be pursued.