Is Music Therapy a Prescription for Rare Diseases?

For some patients, rhythm and beats can complement hospitals and medication.

Rare disease doctor's stethoscope resting on top of a guitar

When Dr. Raffi Tachdjian writes a prescription, the remedy on the script may be music instead of medicine.

The Los Angeles-based allergist and pediatrician is a prominent advocate of music therapy, a practice once met with skepticism that has gained mainstream acceptance. Dr. Tachdjian often treats patients with rare diseases like hereditary angioedema (HAE) and primary immune deficiencies, conditions that require regular infusions of medication. Music therapy is one of the tools he uses to treat his patients’ pain, fear and anxiety. The growing therapeutic option uses music’s calming and healing effect as a complement to medicine to achieve certain health goals.

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Dr. Tachdjian’s passion for music therapy goes beyond simply using it in his practice. Nearly two decades ago, he launched The Children’s Music Fund (CMF), a music therapy charity with a main goal of helping patients overcome those familiar struggles of pain, fear and anxiety.

“It’s really a revolutionary concept,” Dr. Tachdjian said of music therapy in a phone interview.

‘Magic’ in Melodies

A music therapist may help a patient sing, play an instrument, or even just tap their hands on a table in order to alleviate pain, calm stress or communicate their feelings. Dr. Tachdjian, who’s also a musician, sees the music therapist as a bedside pilot monitoring vital signs that oftentimes reflect the therapy’s tangible effect on an anxious patient in the form of a lowered heart rate or calmer breathing.

“If you see a session, it’s almost like magic,” Dr. Tachdjian said. “All of a sudden the melody or the rhythm will flow down from the music.”

Dr. Tachdjian began using music therapy in his practice in 2001 during his intern year at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. One of his patients was a teenager suffering from bone cancer. After learning the boy’s passion was playing guitar, Dr. Tachdjian found him an instrument and immediately saw the positive effect music had on the boy’s emotional state.

Rare disease Doctor Raffi Tachdjian
Dr. Raffi Tachdjian

The experience led him to launch The CMF in an effort to provide music therapy for children with serious or life-altering conditions. To get the foundation off the ground, Dr. Tachdjian turned to his own talents by raising $15,000 through selling CDs of electronic music he wrote. Sixteen years later, the Fund provides music therapy sessions, musical instruments or both to 2,500 kids in nine states.

“If we get a call, we're going to set the patient up with a music therapist near them,” Dr. Tachdjian said. “And we actually measure outcomes. After the first session, our master therapist will review to make sure it's a good fit.”

Using Rhythm in Rare Diseases

For kids with some rare diseases, a music therapy session could be used to help calm nerves while infusing medicine. Or it could be a way to readjust to society through the common bond of music following a long layoff from school. Dr. Tachdjian calls this “prehab,” a term he first came across in the hemophilia community.

While not a music therapist himself, Dr. Tachdjian’s early advocacy of the practice put him at the forefront of a field primed for significant growth. More than 1.6 million people in the U.S. received some form of music therapy in 2016, according to the American Music Therapy Association. That’s up from 1 million people in 2012.

CSL Behring recently conducted an educational session on music therapy at its Gettin’ in the Game℠ Junior National Championship event for kids with bleeding disorders last year and sponsors sessions with local hemophilia patient groups throughout the country.

For Dr. Tachdjian the widespread use of music therapy is proof of what he saw after giving a patient a guitar all those years ago; the magic of music can be a natural, calming alternative or complement to traditional medication.

“All of these things we have pills for, guess what? They also come in a couple of notes.”