Whether you have begun lessons on an instrument you’ve always wanted to learn, are practicing more frequently for an upcoming performance, or are simply grooving in your golden years, you could find yourself susceptible to injury.
Physical complaints, especially joint and muscle problems, are common among musicians. In fact, 76% of musicians surveyed by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians said they have experienced at least one physical problem that affected their playing.
Like professional musicians, hobbyists should become aware of these ailments, as well as their prevention and treatment. Specifically, learn about the sources of different kinds of joint pain and inflammation, which are the body’s signal that something is wrong. Knowing these can guide you in learning playing techniques like better fingerings or posture which can prevent or eliminate the problem. The guide at left will help you understand the difference between three common sources of joint pain and inflammation: tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and arthritis, along with some basic treatments for them.
Of course, when learning to play an instrument, it’s best to have an expert teach you the ergonomic basics—how to hold a clarinet or a violin bow correctly, for instance—along with warm-up and stretching techniques for your particular instrument. And don’t forget scales and rudiments, as these not only improve your chops but also warm-up the joints of your fingers, wrists, and shoulders.
Even though you stretch, take breaks, and avoid bad playing habits, you still might experience joint pain and inflammation. A George Mason University study found that 73% of musicians experience pain in their shoulder or neck, while 41% experience it in their hand or wrist. Don’t play through pain. The quicker you treat the problem and adjust your technique to accommodate it, the less the likelihood that the problem will persist. While some treatment can be done at home, it is always best to consult with a medical professional, preferably one who has experience treating musicians.
Tips to Overcome Common Pain
Tendonitis: Tendons, or sinews, connect muscle to bone. Like ligaments, which attach bone to bone, they are made up of a tough connective tissue called collagen. Tendons will function smoothly as long as they are used normally. However, if they are overused they can be damaged, leading to inflammation, or tendonitis. Symptoms include pain, especially with movement, stiffness at the tendon, and burning around the entire joint. Sparsely supplied with blood, tendons are slow to heal.
Treatment: It is important to treat tendonitis immediately, so the case doesn’t get more severe. A topical analgesic can help relieve the inflammation by dilating the blood vessels. Ice also will help reduce the pain and inflammation. The pain should diminish within three weeks, although the tendon can take up to six weeks to completely heal. To prevent tendonitis in the future, stretch the muscle attached to the tendon regularly.
Carpal tunnel syndrome: Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the nerve that supplies feeling to the thumb and thumb-side of the hand, called the median nerve, becomes pinched at the wrist. This can be caused by a fracture, soft tissue trauma, arthritis, endocrine disorders (such as diabetes), or repetitive motion. Its symptoms differ from tendonitis in that you most likely will experience burning, numbness, or tingling in your hand in addition to wrist or forearm pain.
Treatment: If you have mild symptoms, anti-inflammatory drugs, cold packs, and night splints can be used. The affected hand should be rested for at least two weeks to avoid further damage to the tissue. Medical attention should be sought for severe or chronic cases. Stretching exercises can benefit people dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome. By stretching the inflamed muscle, you will increase the ability to play your instrument with ease.
Arthritis: Arthritis occurs when the cushioning between joints—a tough, gel-like tissue called cartilage—is compromised. Without cartilage, bone rubs against bone, causing pain, redness, swelling, and stiffness in affected joints. Mild at first, these symptoms can be mistaken for other joint ailments. However, a doctor can test for limited range of motion and fluid build-up, called effusion, that distinguishes arthritis.
Treatment: Most treatments for arthritis soothe the pain and slow the progression of the disease. For temporary relief, you can use a heating pad, ice packs, bandages, and over-the-counter analgesics. In the long run, you should consult a professional rheumatologist to find out what type of arthritis you have and which modern treatment is best.