A Closer Look at the Therapeutic Effects of the Arts

By Laura Bradford

As someone who has made a career as a writer and also happens to have MS, I found myself more than a little intrigued by the therapeutic effects of the arts as shared by the therapists and patients in this issue’s cover story. So, in an effort to explore this topic even more, I spent a little time talking with Francois Bethoux, MD, Chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute.

Q: Dr. Bethoux, I’ve been fascinated to hear of the emotional lift that comes from the arts. In our cover story, a patient in Music Therapy spoke of knowing she’d have a better day after attending a Music Therapy session. Those who engage in the visual arts speak about that same lift, as well, but also the outlet and hope it provides them. One of the writers I spoke to, talked about the way writing has enabled her to collect her thoughts in a way she often has difficulty doing verbally because of her MS. Can you tell us a little bit about why you think these kinds of outlets help MS patients in an emotional sense?

Dr. Bethoux: “Although it’s well known that the arts connect with us at an emotional level, we haven’t yet fully grasped the therapeutic potential of generating positive emotions. Now that the connection between our emotional health and our physical health has been demonstrated, we can hope that more research will look into the therapeutic effects of the arts. There can be two aspects to interacting with the arts: enjoying music or a piece of visual art (which is seen as more passive, even though there is an active investment from the person if they connect with the artwork), and participating in creative arts (which is seen as more active). I think that both can generate positive emotions in anyone, including people with MS. Because we know that MS is often associated with emotional difficulties, it is all the more important to create opportunities for positive emotions through the arts. The arts can also create opportunities for positive social interactions (e.g. group art or music therapy), which may also generate positive emotions.”

Q: How about physical benefits to art and/or music therapy?

Dr. Bethoux: “This is an area that hasn’t been extensively researched yet. People can report improved perceived physical health after participation in art or music therapy. There may also be physical benefits from the actual physical activity related to art/music therapy. There are specific music and art therapy techniques designed to enhance a person’s physical abilities. For example, a neuro-music therapy technique called rhythmic auditory stimulation has been used for gait training in people with Parkinson’s disease, and is being studied in MS.”

Q: MS affects different people in different ways. Can art or music be tailored to meet various challenges? And if so, how?

Dr. Bethoux: “The opportunities to interact with the arts should be tailored to a person’s physical, cognitive, and emotional status and needs. Art and music therapists are trained to adapt to everyone’s unique situation and needs. Also, the art should be tailored to a person’s interests, culture, and taste. It is therefore essential to start by getting to know each person with MS better before engaging them in an art-related activity. Technology is a great help in making art more accessible to people with various abilities.”

Q: Who would you recommend these forms of therapy for, patient-wise?

Dr. Bethoux: “I would say that anyone who experiences physical, cognitive, and/or emotional challenges related to MS could benefit from art and music therapy.”

Q: Do you feel that these types of therapy (art, music) have a real place in the treatment of diseases like MS?

Dr. Bethoux: “In my opinion, art and music therapy should be part of the comprehensive management of MS, along with other therapeutic approaches. Art and music therapy can be made accessible to anyone with MS, in person or online. They are low-cost and safe interventions, which can be delivered individually or in a group setting, and sometimes combined with other interventions. For example, some rehabilitation hospitals employ music therapists to work alongside physical therapists. As we said before, the arts can generate positive emotions, which can in turn enhance a person’s ability to participate in other activities, including other treatments.”

Francois Bethoux MDFrancois Bethoux, MD, physiatrist, currently serves as Chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute. He is also director of rehabilitation services at the Mellen Center for MS Treatment and Research, and medical director of the Arts and Medicine Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. He has served as the editor-in-chief of the International Journal of MS Care since 2014. Dr. Bethoux’s research interests include neurorehabilitation, spasticity management, and interventions (including therapeutic arts) to improve walking in persons with MS and other central nervous system disorders.