If you’re a musician, your health is just as important as your instrument; both must be in tune and properly functioning to play well. However, with the practice that is required to become great at playing any instrument comes repetitive movements that can cause injuries. Common musician injuries include Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, De Quervain’s Syndrome, repetitive stress injuries such Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and Tendonitis. These ailments can get in the way of your playing by limiting the time you can practice and diminishing your ability to perform.
Unfortunately, many musicians treat these injuries with medication, including opioids and anti-inflammatory medication, as they may be effective at relieving even intense pain. But this can lead to addiction and even kill you with their side effects, especially the NSAIDs. Others turn to invasive surgeries to remedy damaged tendons, blood vessels or muscles; but often surgeries don’t guarantee that you’ll be good as new once you’ve recovered.
But the good news is that most of the time, neither are necessary. You can often heal from a musician injury naturally. These 7 self-help techniques will help you play better with ease. If these are not enough, trigger point and fascia release body work is often more helpful. Yes, you can play great without totally destroying your body in the process, it just takes discipline, mindfulness and a different understanding of fascia and pain that we teach at the Blatman Health and Wellness Center.
Pay Attention to Your Body
Consider the body a musical instrument and pay attention to subtle signs your body is out of tune. Many musician injuries are direct results of a combination of poor form, overuse or repetition, or general wear and tear on the tendons and ligaments that allow you to play. Depending on what instrument you play, different issues may arise.
For instance, musicians who play traditional string instruments like guitar or stand-up bass may get tired or heavy arms, tingling, numbing or burning sensations in the extremities. Their hands may feel weak or clumsy. This can be a sign of De Quervain’s Syndrome — a painful condition affecting the tendons on the thumb side of your wrist. Musicians who suffer from De Quervain’s Syndrome hurt when they turn the wrist, grasp anything or make a fist.
Musicians that play the piano and drums are especially susceptible to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a condition where the forearm fascia tightens and compresses the median nerve as it goes through the wrist.
If you play an instrument you have to keep suspended in front of you, like violin or oboe, you’re more susceptible to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. This is when the nerve that exits the thoracic outlet and runs down your arm becomes compressed by the neck and chest muscles. You may feel pain or numbness in the shoulder, arms and/or hand. As with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, sometimes musicians choose surgical interventions for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. But there are alternatives to shoulder surgery, and they begin with mindfulness, respecting your body, and fascia release bodywork.
Even singers can get overuse or misuse injuries that deal with their vocal cords. These have the ability to permanently damage their ability to sing. For instances of vocal cord polyps or nodules, some singers actually get surgeries to correct these ailments.
All of these disorders and syndromes are progressive, meaning the longer you ignore them or “play through the pain” (as many of us have been encouraged to by directors and coaches), the more damage you do to the affected area. That’s why mindfulness is so important no matter what instrument you play. When you start noticing discomfort or that you can’t practice nearly as long as you used to, take action. Your instrument is an extension of your body (another thing your director has likely said to you), so you’ve got to properly care for it the same way you care for your instrument.
Balance Your Posture
Try to straighten your back, whether you are standing or sitting. Slouching will roll your shoulders and neck forward, tightening muscles and causing strain. This can also lead to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a nerve and vascular-related disorder characterized by pain, tingling or weakness in the shoulder or arm. It’s not just a risk for violinists; slouching over a piano or a guitar can compress the thoracic outlet – an area in your chest that is integral to the use of your arms and fingers. But as any musician knows, some instruments don’t allow proper playing and sitting or standing up straight. If this is the case, try to offset the slouching you do in your practice time with stretching that opens your chest and shoulders. Stretching exercises are actually a commonly recommended medical treatment for relieving and preventing Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
You know that weak, sluggish feeling you get when you’ve been jamming really hard? Your arms feel heavy or you feel a burning sensation in your neck and joints? Take a break. Step away from your instrument and do something different. Listen to the reel of how that last track sounded. Get out for a breath of fresh air. Take some with your band mates to laugh it off a little. If you’re part of a classical ensemble or symphony and don’t have the luxury of choosing when to take a break, make the most of the ones you’re given by practicing relaxation techniques in your downtime.
Feeling ragged from a rigorous practice regimen? If you’ve been pushing hard and are starting to feel it, give yourself permission to chill out a bit. Play a mellower piece. If you’re in an ensemble, try a song that focuses on the talents of another musician to give your joints and limbs time to recover. And as long as you don’t have a performance coming right up, taking a few days off from practice and doubling down on your self-care may be just the thing you need to calm those irritated ligaments in your shoulders or arms. Even athletes have off-seasons. Take a little vaca from your “sport” and relax.
Rhythm doesn’t just apply to singing and playing your instrument; it’s in your breathing, too. Use agile breathing habits in pace with the music. Make sure to always breathe through your diaphragm; it takes the work out of your neck and chest, decreasing the risk of developing Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Breathing efficiently coordinates a number of other muscles you use to play your instrument, which helps prevent musician injuries. Clumsy breathing causes undue tension and unbalanced use of your muscles, which can lead to strains and injuries. Mindful breathing techniques will also contribute to keeping better posture.
See a Masseuse
Getting a massage relaxes muscle tension, which can help alleviate Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, De Quervain’s Syndrome and repetitive stress injuries like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Tendonitis. Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck brought a hand masseuse on his classical music tour specifically to help mediate the symptoms of repetitive stress injuries and De Quervain’s Syndrome. Getting regular massages as a therapy for back pain from sitting at your piano or slouching over your guitar will also help you keep or improve proper posture. See? All of these habits work together to lessen your discomfort and even relieve the inflammation without surgery or opioids.
Read our Book, Winners’ Guide to Pain Relief. Learn about pain patterns from fascia injury, and how to massage several times each day with a rubber ball. Order a copy and a ball today.
Visit a Health & Wellness Doctor
Through a comprehensive assessment, we can diagnose the source of your musician pain and develop a treatment plan. This could involve natural remedies like acupuncture, massage, or pressure point relief, and/or regenerative medicine like PRP therapy or stem cell injections. The focus of our health and wellness center is just that – health and wellness. Instead of treating symptoms, we treat the root of the problem, and we use your body’s own healing processes to do it. Even if the damage has already been done (because our bodies can never 100% heal without help), we can recommend medical marijuana for pain or regenerative treatments for torn tendons.
Do you suffer from musician pain? Call our office to schedule an appointment. We treat patients at our Cincinnati and New York City offices. Also inquire about telemedicine possibilities.