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Drum circles to stem chronic pain? UNG giving it a shot
UNG students and faculty participate in a drum circle Thursday, June 6, 2019, inside the Health and Natural Sciences building. Through a grant from Move Together's Pro Bono Incubator, the school's physical therapy and music departments collaborate on a 10-week research program to explore the link between drumming and a possible decrease in chronic pain. - photo by Scott Rogers, DCN Regional Staff

The University of North Georgia in Dahlonega is trying to beat the need for pain medication. After receiving a grant from Move Together's Pro Bono Incubator, professors from the physical therapy and music departments teamed up to research the link between chronic pain and drum circles.

“When you have chronic pain, it gets a hold of your life,” said Don Walsh, associate professor of physical therapy at North Georgia. “Drumming allowed people to, for the first time, not have many rules, to be part of a socialization of people, professors and students coming around a common goal … People were surprised in a way that they could do that for 45 mintutes and it didn't make their pain worse.”

Not only did the pain not get worse, in many cases, it got better. Many participants were taking their pain medications less frequently and some stopped taking their medication altogether.

Walsh said they asked people in the community who were at least 18 years old, suffered from chronic pain and were taking medication for it to come to the university’s free Student-led Therapy and Rehab Clinic for a 10-week program. Participants gathered for the drum circle, led by Steven Walker, adjunct professor of percussion at North Georgia, and followed different rhythms from around the world.

“It focuses on what they can do,” Walsh said. “People walking in chronic pain are very focused sometimes inwardly on what they can't do. And so one of our inclusion criteria for the study was we did not want experienced musicians.”

They wanted the participants to have the ability to be free and not worried about how well they were following along to the beat.

“I think part of it is they're starting to move again,” said Sue Klappa, professor of physical therapy at North Georgia. “And then the rhythm can do something to kind of reset the tolerance for pain. So people aren't focusing on themselves and the pain.”

And it wasn’t just the drumming that helped. The community aspect of the drum circle was helpful to the participants, too.

Klappa said engaging in a community, especially one that shares in the same struggles, can help ease pain in many ways.

“It was really exciting for me to see that piece of it develop as well,” Klappa said.

Walsh said there were different layers to the healing that comes from a drum circle.

“Healing takes place in multiple domains,” Walsh said. “Not just physical tissue level.”

Walsh and Klappa are now “crunching data” and following up with patients to see how they’ve continued to handle their chronic pain. Being a part of a group activity was beneficial and now they want to see if things are still getting better.

“The group dynamic really came alive here,” Walsh said. “There's a lot of empathy and listening ears and people that can understand … When you put people in a room around a common theme that they feel open to share about, it's powerful by itself.”

Klappa is excited to see where else they can take drum circles to help the community.

“It's been a lot of fun,” Klappa said. “We’ve learned a lot in the process and I think we're excited to see where we can take this drum circle and really help other people out who are facing other challenges.”