You may know the feeling. You’re happily jamming away on guitar or drums, or practicing a tough passage on your horn or piano, when suddenly there’s a sharp pain in your arm, shoulder, or back. You stop playing, and along with the pain, you notice swelling and tenderness in the muscle. What do you do? Will the symptoms subside on their own? Should you see a doctor?
If you’re an athlete, you may already know the first aid, and, increasingly, common musician’s ailments are being treated in the same way as sports injuries. This guide explains common muscle complaints musicians can experience and their immediate treatment. Remember, if you experience severe or chronic symptoms of muscle damage, consult a physician, preferably one who has experience treating musicians.
Don’t ignore pain. Caused by the inflammation of damaged tissue, it serves as your body’s alarm, warning you that something is wrong and needs care. Although it may be possible to “play through” a minor muscle cramp, pain is your signal to put your instrument down and start treatment. Inflammation should not be ignored either. A function of the body’s repair system, in which blood vessels widen to rush repair cells to the damage, unchecked inflammation can severely impact mobility and affect surrounding tissue.
Learn to Recognize Serious Muscle Pain
Cramp—Commonly known as a “Charley Horse,” a cramp occurs when a muscle contracts involuntarily but does not relax. Clarinetists are one group of musicians susceptible to them, in fingers that must be held in position for long periods. Severe cases can be sharply painful and debilitating, the cramped muscle feeling like a knot beneath the skin. Many causes have been suggested for cramping, including repetitive motion and over-exertion.
Treatment: Immediately stretch and lightly massage the cramped muscle. If the cramp is severe, apply ice to reduce swelling and, if needed, take an over-the-counter analgesic for the pain. Recurrent cramping may need medical attention.
Muscle Strain—Damage to muscle fibers that have not torn is called muscle strain. Drummers who over-exert themselves, for instance, might notice the effects of damaged muscle fibers in their shoulders and upper arms. Because the pain is less severe than torn muscles, many people play through the pain, which can lead to poorly healed lesions and weak, even shortened, muscles.
Treatment: The best way to treat a mild strain is to gently move and massage the muscle as much as pain permits. To prevent recurrent injury or a pull, “listen” to the pain and perform graduated stretching and strengthening exercises.
Tennis Elbow—This common name is often given to different complaints that affect the elbow, including damage caused by torn muscles in the forearm. Repetitive motion is one of the causes of tennis elbow, and it often can be felt by violinists in their bowing arm. Its symptoms include pain in the elbow that increases with gripping and twisting movements of the wrist.
Treatment: Avoiding the motion that caused tennis elbow is the most immediate treatment recommended. In the long term, strapping the forearm can help transfer the load to other muscles, but if pain persists, medical intervention and physical therapy will be needed.