Singing, Health, and Neuromuscular Disease

Singing, Health, and Neuromuscular Disease
For the past six years, I have been enjoying singing with a choir. I thoroughly enjoy learning and singing the music, the social support that I receive, and being a part of making music together. Last summer, I began to take my singing more seriously, and began to take vocal lessons. As I progressed with singing, I recently realized that my physical health has improved.

Prior to beginning to sing with my choir, I experienced several colds each year, and at least one bout of bronchitis per year requiring a course of antibiotics. Since I have been with the choir, I have not had a single bronchial infection. Since beginning vocal training last year, while there were a couple of times that I had a cold, the colds remained very light.

The neuromuscular disease that I have, Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT), does sometimes affect the strength of the respiratory muscles. While CMT is not considered to shorten expected lifespan, some people with CMT do die from complications of influenza or pneumonia related to the weakening of the muscles in the respiratory system. Thus, if vocal exercises and singing can strengthen my respiratory muscles and decrease my susceptibility to respiratory illness, I consider this to be an important benefit.

Many individuals with neuromuscular disease, including those with muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), CMT, experience significant weakening of the muscles in the respiratory system. Weakness of the respiratory system can lead to a variety of problems, including shortness of breath, fatigue, sleep problems, headaches, and susceptibility to and difficulty recovering form respiratory illness. Other associated difficulties may include weight loss, loss of appetite, emotional issues such as anxiety, cognitive problems such as confusion, a weakened voice, and decreased ability to cough.

While my experience provides only weak anecdotal evidence, it turns out that other individuals with neuromuscular disease have experienced similar benefits. Further, playing a wind instrument, such as the trumpet, clarinet, flute, or even harmonica, will be likely to have similar benefits. Some respiratory therapists who work with individuals with neuromuscular disease recommend vocal exercises, singing, or playing a wind instrument. Along with the potential benefits to physical health, singing has been shown to benefit emotional and psychological health, as well.

Practicing vocal exercises and singing involves learning to breathe more deeply, which expands the lungs. This in turn promotes healthy clearing of mucus. Breathing fully also improves the range of motion and elasticity of the muscles in chest wall. Improving the function of these muscles makes normal breathing easier and more efficient, and may also decrease episodes of shortness of breath. This may lead to fewer episodes of bronchitis and respiratory illness. Clinical research, however, is needed to document and fully understand the potential benefits for individuals with neuromuscular disease as well as for individuals with respiratory disorder.

As with any form of physical activity, it is important before beginning vocal training, singing, or playing a wind instrument to check with your physician. For individuals who have been prescribed breathing exercises, vocal exercises, singing, or playing an instrument will not most likely replace the breathing exercises, but act as a supplement to the breathing exercises. Vocal training, singing, or playing a wind instrument may not be indicated for individuals who do not have adequate lung capacity to speak.

While I did not start singing to improve my respiratory health, vocal exercises and singing with a choir have had significant health benefits for me. You might find similar benefits, while also experiencing the fun and joy that involvement with music brings into life.

Resources:

Cheng, M., (2013). Having breathing difficulties? Try singing. The Associated Press. Retrieved from Today Health on 5/1/15 from https://www.today.com/health/having-breathing-difficulties-try-singing-6C10543906 .

Gick, M.L., and Nicol, J.J., (2015). Singing for respiratory health: theory, evidence and challenges. Health Promotion International.

Menehan, K., (2013). Singing and Psychological Well-being. Chorus America website. Retrieved on 5/1/15 from https://www.chorusamerica.org/singers/singing-and-psychological-well-being .

Robinson, R., (1998). Breathe Easy. Quest. Retrieved on 5/1/15 from https://quest.mda.org/article/breathe-easy .

Wechsler, K., and Leitsch, J., (2005). Sing Out. Quest. Retrieved on 5/1/15 from https://quest.mda.org/article/sing-out .





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This content was written by Jori Reijonen, Ph.D.. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Jori Reijonen, Ph.D. for details.