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MS and the Arts

Music, visual arts and creative writing have always been a part of my life; I embrace the idea that expression through the arts makes us more human and connected to each other. So it was no wonder that the session Utilizing the Power of the Arts in MS Care: Everyone Benefits at the 2019 Consortium for MS Centers meeting in Seattle, caught my attention. There were three presenters to this session and each reinforced my view that creating can be a positive way to cope with a chronic disease.

Research is thin

Francois Bethoux, MD, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, chaired the session and presented Evidence Supporting the Use of the Arts in the Management of MS. Bethoux shared the big challenge for the arts and medicine is the lack of evidence. “The arts are versatile and you will find very few people who say we shouldn’t have the arts. Of course, like everything in treatment that isn’t a drug, the question arises, ‘Who will pay for it?’ There is evidence (supporting the value of arts) in various populations, but in MS it is very thin.”

The effects of the arts should be pursued

He went on to challenge the attendees to share their own work with the arts and said, “Researching the effects of the arts and interventions should be pursued. We all have demonstrated our success in small programs but it doesn’t reach the level of large populations.”

Music therapy & MS

Lisa Gallagher, MS, certified Music Therapist, reviewed the ways music therapy can be used not only in group sessions but as a tool for relaxation during stressful treatments such as infusions. “Any participation with the arts, even just as a viewer, can have beneficial effects. There are neurological benefits to music,” said Gallagher. Those benefits she listed include improvement in gait, brain activity as shown on functional MRIs, speech problems, as well as emotional assistance to coping skills.

The power of rhythm

“Music is a form of performing arts that has been most studied,” noted Gallagher. “Rhythmic auditory stimulation is a neuro music therapy technique and there is lots of research in Parkinson’s and maybe we can use that in MS. In Parkinson’s, it is used to train walking rhythm. In MS we don’t have freezing of gait like in Parkinson’s but it could be used for rhythm as a training tool for the gait.” Gallagher went on to say they have a home walking program that is done to music and said, “When training with music we see differences in the right direction.” The brain is attuned to the rhythm of music and that can drive the steps we take.

Interacting with art

Gallagher works at the Arts and Medicine Institute of Cleveland Clinic, which you wouldn’t think of as a museum, but she and Bethoux explained they have a world-class collection of 6,500 pieces of fine art and over 15,000 prints and posters. This art is shared with hospital patients and guests through being a part of the décor and in special exhibits. Cleveland Clinic has even developed a guide program for people who want to learn more about the art in their clinic spaces, and an app for the smartphone to use when viewing their art.

The app, CCF AR+, allows you to view the art in nine different Cleveland Clinic facilities online.  If you are there in person, the app has augmented reality (AR) that allows you to interact with the art. The app almost makes me want to make a visit to Cleveland Clinic outside of medical needs just to check out their collection.

Art as medicine

Ahmed Obeidat, MD, PhD, at Medical College of Wisconsin, shared Medical Humanities Through Arts in MS – Reflective Writing and Visual Arts, and focused on how art and writing that reflect our own experiences with chronic disease is a tool that should be used more often. “Arts as a medicine is a very old concept but not well studied, and the visual and reflective arts such as writing allow us a way to express what otherwise might remain invisible. Artists change our perspective,” said Obeidat.

The art of writing

He shared images created from MRIs by artist Elizabeth Jameson and prints by other artists that show how artists interpret their own situation with chronic disease into a visual display. He then moved on to talk about the value of writing in medical arts and shared several examples. As a writer myself, I know how it feels to express my situation with MS through words. I was surprised and excited when Obeidat shared a writing sample about MS by’s very own Devin Garlit. Devin’s words projected on the screen for the medical folks to read was a convincing display of the impact the writers here make on others.

Projector screen featuring quote from Devin Garlit

My takeaway

My takeaway from this session is we should crank up our favorite tunes to exercise with, take a blank piece of paper and sketch away, or grab that paper and pen (or computer) and start writing. The arts have a beneficial effect and according to these experts, they are another tool we should use to live with MS.

Wishing you well,


This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Bettybeem
    8 months ago

    I firmly believe music has been very beneficial in a variety of areas. I resumed playing the violin after MS forced my early retirement from many years of being a learning and reading disabilities specialist and full time academically advanced gifted and talented student educator. Within a few years I was playing with one of the oldest civic orchestras in Houston. I’ve also taught private viola and violin students in a large school district in Houston as well as in my home. I’ve also studied chamber music with the Princeton Quartet for the last 3 years.

    First, playing a musical instrument is one of the very few activities that activates all areas of the brain. My neurologist is amazed at the increase in the corpus callosum on my MRI’s.

    My fine motor skills are quite good. There are sections in symphonies and other orchestral pieces which require that I play over 300 different notes per minute. Conductors determine the rate at which music is to be played. Through the use of structured practice, musicians increase their rate of playing often through the use of the metronome. Today’s metronome is an electronic device which sounds and shows the beats per minute. 4/4 music means there are 4 beats per measure with a quarter note receiving one beat. In an 80 beats per minute piece, if all the notes are quarter notes, 80 notes are played per minute. That, however, is a really slow piece. Often we’re playing 2, 3, or 4 notes per beat. If one is playing 4 notes per beat, then 320 notes are played in a minutes. Now increase the tempo to 92 or 102 beats per minute. Increase the number of notes to 3 per beat and the number of notes to be played is 276 or 306. There are a lot of neural actions going on to do that consistently for an extended length of time.

    A violinist must also be able to play the notes in tune, and with the correct dynamics and interpretation based on the composer and the period in which the composition was written. All of the skills require focused, intentional practice.

    Aural skills are crucial for blending the various parts of a full orchestra into a comprehensive cohesive unit.
    Use of watching an orchestra perform a composition on YouTube while following along is very helpful. Also, I often purchase the score (a score is what the conductor uses. It shows what each instrument is playing at any time and includes the composer’s tempos, dynamics, and other information) for the symphonies and other pieces. After I use highlighter tape to high light my part, I am able to study how the piece is put together and analyze the various parts. Using both YouTube and the scores has greatly enhanced my performances.

    This somewhat simplified explanation of what is needed to play fairly difficult orchestral pieces hopefully provides some insight into the plethora of cognitive skills needed to perform.

    In addition to the cognitive component, there’s the social component. Weekly during the season, I can socialize with like minded folks. When we have concerts, during intermission I socialize with those who have come to hear us. After concerts several friends and I go out for dinner to celebrate.

    In the affective domain, nothing can replace the joy that comes from playing a musical instrument.

    In spite of numerous MS challenges, I have been able to pursue my passion.

    I’m also in the process of developing beginning violin and viola curriculum based on neurological principles of learning.

    It was very interesting to read the comments of the professionals discussing the importance of the arts. Perhaps in the future, those who do actively participate in the arts could speak and share their personal experiences.

    Betty Beem

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