Click for our latest updates on COVID-19

Main Content

Music Helps Patients Return to the Rhythm of Life

May 16, 2016

The sounds of an autoharp echo up and down the stairwell, punctuated by a rhythmic singsong voice gently reminding the patient to “step ... and step … and step.”

Craig Hospital physical therapist Wes Thornton carefully supports patient Lisa Wilson as she practices moving up and down stairs. Music therapist Sarah Thompson stands nearby, playing the musical string instrument with a steady beat, helping Wilson time her movements.

“There have been more than 70 research studies demonstrating the benefits of rhythm on walking,” says Thompson. “Wes and I have co-treated Lisa several times, and we see an instant change in the coordination of her movements when I’m playing.”

Wilson, a special education teacher from Reno, Nevada, suffered an anoxic brain injury in August when she stopped breathing for 40 minutes after receiving pain medication for a broken leg. She was intubated in the cardiac intensive care unit for two weeks before transferring to Craig for rehabilitation.

“My MRI showed that my basal ganglia was highly affected,” Wilson says. “That part of the brain controls movement and coordination and spasticity. My speech and memory were also affected.”

Thornton says Wilson’s symptoms, including tremors, present similarly to those of a patient with Parkinson’s disease. “It’s really exciting to use music therapy to work on getting her muscles to move when they are supposed to,” he says.

Craig’s donor-funded Music Therapy program uses the neuroscience of music to help individuals with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries make clinical strides in areas ranging from breath control to regulation of attention and gait patterns. Patients meet one-on-one with Thompson up to three times a week for up to an hour.

“We know so much about how the brain and body respond to rhythm, melody and harmony,” says Thompson. “Music is so flexible; we are able to use it to our advantage to meet needs of our patients.”


In a recent co-treatment therapy session, Wilson practiced walking in a hallway before moving to the stairs to practice going up and down. Her goal is to be able to climb the stairs at her home following her discharge. “It’s been four months since I’ve slept in my own bed beside my husband,” she says.

As a lifelong music lover, Wilson enjoys working with the two therapists together. “Wes and Sarah make it spunky,” she jokes. “I don’t have any question, my body just goes with the music — it prompts me when to move.”

Thompson also works on singing exercises to help Wilson with her breath support and vocal projection. Ed Sheeran songs are her favorite.

“Being at Craig is like being in a home with really nice people who treat me like a queen,” says Wilson. “I just look into Sarah’s sparkling eyes and it gives me affirmation.

“I love it. I get a glow from just being around her.”