The prostate cancer test to confirm a diagnosis is an uncomfortable medical procedure with an equally awkward name — the transrectal biopsy. This intrusive test uses an ultrasound probe and needle to retrieve a tissue sample for analysis. Even when the biopsy causes no pain it sparks plenty of patient anxiety.

Duke University researchers have come up with a way to counteract that anxiety with something decidedly low tech: headphones.

In a Duke Cancer Institute study, researchers outfitted patients undergoing the prostate cancer tests with headphones. Results were published this month in the journal Urology.

“It’s a matter of shifting attention, so the music provides a distraction from the procedure,” Dr. Matvey Tsivian, a Duke urologic oncology fellow and lead author said in a statement.

Duke researchers enrolled 88 patients in the study, each randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group had no headphones, the second wore noise-cancelling headphones without music and the third heard classical music on their headphones.

An estimated 700,000 U.S. men undergo a prostate biopsy each year. A transrectal biopsy involves a spring loaded needle that has a loud trigger. Duke said that the noise alone causes many men to flinch. An estimated 20 percent of men experience high stress and anxiety about the procedure. To gauge that anxiety, Duke researchers took the patients’ blood pressure before and after the procedure.

Both patient groups that heard no music had elevated blood pressure after the procedure compared to before.

The group that listened to Bach concertos experienced no spike in blood pressure. In a questionnaire, participants who listened to music also reported less pain. The relatively simple study was conceived by Duke medical students and received no outside funding.

“This is something that could be broadly employed,” Dr. Thomas Polascik, director of Urologic Oncology at the Duke Cancer Institute and senior author of the study said. “It’s easy and inexpensive — a set of headphones and music. That’s it.”

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