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Children's Health: Classical music calms frayed nerves in the emergency room

Soothing sounds lower anxiety levels for parents enduring long waits with their children

Listening to mellow classical music seems to take some of the stress out of long waits in a children’s hospital emergency room.

Doctors at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Mo., assessed the calming effect of music and aromatherapy, and found that the adults accompanying the children reported that the sounds but not the smells took the sting out of waiting.

“We wondered if there was any way — short of seeing them more quickly, which is really impossible — to make that wait a little bit more pleasant,” says Dr. Lydia Holm, a pediatric emergency physician who moved to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, after working on the study.

Over 28 consecutive days, she and her colleagues assessed the responses of waiting parents and grandparents while exposing them to classical music and/or Neroli oil, a plant fragrance used in aromatherapy.

The music was mainly from the Baroque period, at a rate of about 60 to 70 beats per minute, similar to the resting heart rate of a human adult. The Neroli oil, an essential oil with an orange scent that has been found to be anxiety-reducing and fear-dispelling, was put in diffusers in strategic areas of the emergency room.

More than 1,100 people, nearly 90 per cent of whom were parents or grandparents of the children waiting to be seen, completed surveys about the experience. Anxiety levels decreased on days when classical music was playing, but there was no difference in anxiety levels on the days aromatherapy was used compared with the days it wasn’t.

The researchers concluded that music is an easy and useful way to decrease anxiety in the emergency department waiting area, but Holm says the practice wasn’t continued in Kansas City.

“After the study ended, the nurses would call back to the office and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you turn that back on. People are getting a little restless in here.’ They had just informally noticed that people seemed a little better on days when the music was playing.”