Eliminate Chronic Pain—With Your Ears?!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 50 million U.S. adults suffer from chronic pain.

Of those, nearly 20 million struggle with “high-impact” chronic pain—daily, persistent pain that severely restricts your ability to complete everyday tasks like working, leaving your home, housework, bathing, or even getting dressed.

I know what it’s like to suffer from excruciating pain day in and day out. Recovery from five back-to-back emergency surgeries was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

SOURCE: Jim Donovan

I knew the dangers of becoming addicted to the opioid prescription on my night stand and so the moment I could stop taking them, I did.

But I was in pain and needed help, so I leaned into something I knew a lot about: the power of sound.

I made an enormous difference in my own recovery.

And as it turns out, researchers have recently discovered that a strange but effective form of sound therapy could be a promising solution in helping relieve intense chronic pain—safely and naturally!

The remarkable powers of vibration

Researchers have discovered that sound vibrations administered to the outer ear can effectively reduce chronic pain.

I realize that getting pain relief through your ears may sound odd at first, but it’s really quite remarkable once you understand the power of the vagus nerve.

Your vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves in the body—branching out from your brain all the way down to your abdomen. It touches all of your major bodily systems along the way, including your auditory system (which controls your hearing).

And right inside your ears is the auricular branch of the vagus nerve, which extends to the outer ear. (More on this in a moment.)

IMAGE SOURCE: Healthline

When the vagus nerve is stimulated through a technique called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), it activates the body’s built-in healing systems.

Researchers are only beginning to understand the full potential of the vagus nerve. But what they do know is that using vibration to stimulate the nerve helps alter your body’s chemical messengers for the better.

For instance, it can increase the production of some of your most potent and beneficial natural substances like:

  • Endorphins and dopamine, known as the body’s safe “natural painkillers”
  • Nitric oxide, which produces anti-inflammatory effects
  • Oxytocin, which positively boosts your mood and feelings of connection
  • Acetylcholine, which has been shown to protect the memory and calm the body

And when the vagus nerves helps signal the release of these chemicals, they can work help to heal the body.

It’s all in the ears

Although VNS is still on the fringe of mainstream medicine, some doctors are currently prescribing it for treatment-resistant depression, epilepsy, and migraine headaches.

And in the last few years, researchers have had their eye on how VNS might help people with chronic pain—specifically with an emerging technique called transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS).

For a tVNS treatment, a small earpiece is worn—very similar to a hearing aid. The earpiece is hooked up to wires that provide small electrical currents, or vibrations, to certain parts of the ear.

This form of VNS stimulates certain “hot spots” on the outer ear that connect to the auricular branch of the vagus nerve—helping to spark pain-relieving chemical release within the body.

Where the ear connects to the vagus nerve.
IMAGE SOURCE: ResearchGate.net

In a 2017 study, researchers found that tVNS provided pain-relieving effects for pain patients partially due to its ability to shift attention and positively affect mood—factors that both dull the perception of pain.

In a 2018 meta-analysis, researchers found tVNS provided significant pain relief for patients with fibromyalgia, migraines, or lower back pain.

And in a 2020 study, lead author Eugenijus Kaniusas stated that this form of treatment is “often a lifesaving option, especially for people with chronic pain who have already been treated with other methods and do not respond to medication anymore.”

Though the medical world is still in the beginning stages of tVNS research, I’ll be sure to update you on the latest findings.

In the meantime, I’ll share the natural, non-invasive, pill-free techniques I used to help me with my own recovery last year.

My personal “go-to” pain relief methods

Here are my go-to methods for pain relief that helped me during one of the most trying times of my life. I still use them from time to time.

These are things you can do anytime, anywhere.

  • Musical VNS: Each day I hum or sing along to a minimum of three songs. Doing so stimulates my vagus nerve and sparks the production of my body’s “natural painkillers” and “feel-good chemicals.”

    One of my readers recently shared a story about how VNS has been helping her husband with his chronic pain. Here’s what she wrote on my Sound Health Facebook page.

  • Square breathing during walks: Though I could only walk a few steps at first during my recovery, I was so determined to get back on my feet that I kept at it every day.

    I knew how crucial it was to remain calm during this time, especially since stress has been shown to exacerbate pain. And I also knew that if I lowered my stress levels, my pain levels would drop too.

    Combining the stress-relieving effects of square breathing with movement turned out to be a key element in my healing journey. To learn how to do it, click here.

  • Music listening: Multiple studies have shown that just listening to music makes a big difference in reducing chronic pain and depressive symptoms linked to pain.

    Make a playlist of your own with your favorite upbeat tunes. I prefer Spotify or YouTube, which offer free versions.

  • Rest: Though it was challenging to let myself rest while I healed from my surgeries, my body needed it. Allowing myself to rest whenever my body was tired sped up my healing, helping to alleviate my aches and pains. Aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep per night. And if you have trouble sleeping, this might help.

Remember, sound is one of the world’s oldest medicines. And it can help heal you in a variety of ways—not just pain. (There’s a reason why people have used it for centuries!)

If you’ve never tried incorporating music into your life as a healing tool, I encourage you to give it a shot.

And if you have used music as part of a healing regimen, I’d love to hear about it. Just drop me a line on the Sound Health Facebook page.

P.S. For more ways to reduce pain, try my InnerSound Method. Each week, I’ll send you a 10-minute video walking you through a variety of VNS different techniques. And the more often you do the exercises, the more powerful and quick the effects become. Click here to learn more or give it a try.


SOURCES:

Dabiri, B. et al. (2020). High-Resolution Episcopic Imaging for Visualization of Dermal Arteries and Nerves of the Auricular Cymba Conchae in Humans. Frontiers in Neuroanatomy. 14: pp. 22. Retrieved from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5648334/

Dahlhamer, J. et al. (2018). Prevalence of Chronic Pain and High-Impact Chronic Pain Among Adults — United States, 2016. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 67: pp. 1001 – 1006. Retrieved from:cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6736a2.htm

Frangos, E., Richards, E., and Bushnell, M. (2017). Do the psychological effects of vagus nerve stimulation partially mediate vagal pain modulation? Neurobiology of Pain. 1: pp. 37 – 45. Retrieved from: sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2452073X17300041

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About the author

Jim Donovan M.Ed., is a professional musician and educator. He's an Assistant Professor at Saint Francis University where he teaches music and how the power of sound can help you experience a healthier life.