Many musicians have experienced the tight hands, muscle strain, or fatigue from playing too much in an intense workshop or marathon practice session. Playing an instrument is a complex, physical activity–just ask any novice guitarist who has yet to build up calluses or is still fumbling with barre chords. But few musicians think about the physicality of playing their instrument until an injury like tendinitis or carpal tunnel makes it uncomfortable or impossible to play. Fortunately these injuries are often preventable with some planning and awareness. As a guitarist with carpal tunnel (over ten years now), I can offer a personal perspective on the subject, but in no way should this substitute for medical advice. If you are experiencing pain or continual discomfort, see a doctor who has experience diagnosing playing-related injuries.
Most playing–related injuries fall under the following categories:
Cumulative Trauma syndromes. Usually caused by repetitive motion and occur mainly in the wrist and forearm. Symptoms include fatigue, tenderness, pain, swelling, numbness, and lack of control. The most common cumulative traumas are tendinitis (inflammation of the tendons), epicondylitis (inflammation of the area near the elbow), and bursitis (inflammation of a fluid-filled sac near a joint).
Nerve Entrapment syndromes. If you work at a computer (most of us do), you’re probably familiar with the most common nerve entrapment syndrome: carpal tunnel, which is caused by the pressure on the median nerve in your wrist. Symptoms of nerve entrapment syndromes include pain, numbness, weakness, and tingling (a “pins and needles” sensation).
Thoracic Outlet syndrome. The nerves behind the collarbone (the lower brachial plexus) originate in your neck and connect to your arms and hands. When those nerves become compressed, you may feel pain, weakness, or numbness in your arm or hand.
Focal dystonia. Poor posture, awkward body positioning, and holding your breath while you play can lead to an abnormal spasm of isolated muscle groups.
“If it hurts, don’t do it.” You have heard that one before. I chose to ignore this primitive but plausible advice. Before long I was unable to hold a fork, and forced into rehab. Arm in a sling for 6 months, my disposition was intolerable at best. Before seeking treatment I had convinced myself the early symptoms were a sign of weak hands and I needed to practice harder and “muscle” through the pain. Do not do this!
On the flip side, your playing might not be the problem. I once know this amazing classical player with incredible technique who suddenly experienced wrist pain after playing for years without mishap. When I asked what else he was doing, he told me he was a computer programmer and was spending hours on end (with little sleep) punching keys. Each of us are different, and sometimes our bodies will respond poorly to common, everyday situations–driving a car with a standard transmission, wearing tight wristbands (I don’t know how Zakk Wylde does it), or sleeping in the wrong position–can each have a direct impact on your ability to play comfortably.
Next time I promise to offer some prevention techniques I learned over the years. Sadly, I do still have carpal tunnel, but I have learned to keep it under control without the expensive surgery. In the meantime, I encourage you to listen to your body and be aware of what it is telling you. If you ignore it like I did, you may need to borrow my old arm sling.
- The Brehms Blogger