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Sights and Sounds of Nature Ease Pain

Soothing therapy helps patients during lung procedure

THURSDAY, May 24, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Bringing nature into the hospital room meant less pain for patients having a common but uncomfortable lung procedure, new research shows.

A recording of a gurgling brook and a large mural of a mountain stream in a spring meadow helped bronchoscopy patients control their pain much more than patients not treated to any calming distractions, say scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. During a bronchoscopy, a fiber-optic tube the diameter of a pencil is snaked through your mouth or nose so doctors can examine your lungs for disease.

Doctors say the findings could lead to safer ways to control pain during many invasive procedures.

Hopkins researchers first stumbled across the idea of linking nature to modern medicine shortly after finishing a study of pain management for bronchoscopy patients. About 60 percent of people in that study said they had felt too much pain, despite high doses of painkillers, says lead author Dr. Gregory Diette. At the same time, researchers had been talking with a company that makes murals and tape recordings of nature scenes for hospital settings.

"We wanted to find some way to reduce pain further without increasing the risks of the procedure," Diette says.

The findings were presented May 20 at the American Thoracic Society's annual meeting in San Francisco. Johns Hopkins funded the study, and none of the researchers had any financial interest in the company that makes the murals and tapes. The nature packages, called BedScapes, sell for about $249.

Diette and his colleagues looked at 80 patients about to undergo bronchoscopy. Of those, 41 listened to the sounds of a babbling brook on headphones and looked at a large mural of a meadow scene before, during and after the procedure. The other 39 patients didn't get any distractions, but received the same level of pain medication and medical care. Afterwards, all filled out questionnaires on pain control. Roughly 43 percent more people in the nature group were happy with their pain control compared with the other group.

"I'm intrigued by it. I think there's a lot of interwoven concepts here," says Diette.

There's distraction therapy, which claims that turning a patient's attention toward a pleasant stimulus during a painful procedure can make them more comfortable. Then there's biophilia, a theory that people have an innate bond with nature, and they can have positive physiological responses to natural settings. One 1984 study found that patients in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital had shorter stays and less need for painkillers when their windows faced trees in bloom instead of a brick wall.

Biophilia also may explain why earlier distraction studies using music therapy have had mixed results, says Diette: "Nature sounds may be more soothing than music."

Diette's team plans to test the therapy on bone marrow transplant patients next.

Biophilia also was tried recently with 80 patients awaiting cardiac catheterization at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, with similar results. That study hasn't been published yet, but preliminary findings appeared in the April 1999 issue of The Lancet.

"We found anxiety levels were better" with patients who had both the mural and tape of nature scenes, says Dr. Steven Horowitz, chief of cardiology at Beth Israel's Heart Institute. "I think this type of distraction or break in the focus of a patient is useful. I think that what it did was confirm our intuition that the external environment affects the internal environment of a patient. I'd like to see us move ahead and use this kind of environment more aggressively."

Diette says the potential for the therapy is unlimited.

"There's something very tempting about exploring it in other areas. It's a very inexpensive intervention, and it's harmless. I think people ought to give it a try," he says.

What To Do

Check here for more on biophilia. And this ABC News story talks more about biophilia.

For more information on research involving the nature murals and tapes, go to Healing Environments International Inc.

The Arthritis Society can teach you distraction therapy techniques.

Read these HealthDay stories for more on alternative ways to manage pain.

To find out what clinical trials are being done on chronic pain, check Veritas Medicine.

SOURCES: Interviews with Gregory Diette, M.D., assistant professor, pulmonary and critical care medicine, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, and Steven Horowitz, M.D., chief, cardiology, Heart Institute, Beth Israel Medical Center, New York City; May 20, 2001, presentation, American Thoracic Society annual meeting, San Francisco
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