Written By Carrie Williams, LMT Photo: Lori Figueroa @loripfigueroaphotography
Many musicians do not realize that they are more than artists. They are also athletes. They can suffer from the same muscle problems that athletes do. When a musician plays an instrument, they are contracting different muscles in the body for long periods of time. The muscles being contracted are different depending on the type of instrument played. Constant tension and repetitive motion becomes traumatic to the muscles over time.
As the musician learns how to play, sit, stand and march with their instrument, their range of motion lessons. Muscles shorten and tighten depending on the way they have to hold the instrument and the weight of it. Muscles contract in order to hold an instrument to march with it in tow. Muscles contract in order for the lungs to expand to blow into the instrument. Muscles are at work for the musician!
When a muscle becomes shortened and tense over a period of time it is because it has collected trigger points within the muscle. This happens commonly in musicians because of the repetitive patterns they use while playing and holding their instruments. Trigger points cause the muscle to shorten and lose its flexibility and strength. Over time, this causes the muscle to start to hurt and the musician will then start to lose coordination. Next, their playing ability changes and weakens. Many musicians lose their skill due to muscle spasms.
What Can Be Done To Prevent Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI)
Warm Up! Warm Up! Warm Up! Athletes always do, so should musicians! Warming up cold muscles is important before practicing or performing. Musicians put stress on large muscles to hold the instrument upright and stress on fine motor muscles to play the keys.
You must warm up and get the blood circulating through the entire body before playing. Warm up exercises are ones that get blood moving through the body. This gets the muscles warm and makes them more pliable while playing. Do not do movements that stretch the muscle or overexert it. You should never stretch a cold muscle. You are increasing the likelihood of injury.
Once the muscles are nice and warm, it is time for the musician to practice or play the instrument. Once finished with the instrument, stretching is key. The muscles have been contracting and shortening for a long period of time. Now you must lengthen the muscle back out by stretching it through its full range of motion so they will return to their natural resting length. It is when they do not return to their natural resting length that pain and tightness will start to be felt in the body.
Take frequent breaks. During breaks stretch and rest your muscles. If your elbow is in a bent position for a long period of time while playing, then straighten it out during break time. Look for the repetitive patterns your muscles are doing while playing and try to do the opposite motion while on break.
Never play through pain. If you feel pain while practicing, pay attention to it. The body tells us through pain that something may be wrong. You may need to take a break, ice the muscles or stop for the day. Over training decreases performance.
Common Problems Associated With RSI
Some common problems that can be associated with RSI and affect musicians are carpel tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, bursitis, tendinosis, thoracic outlet syndrome, trigger finger/thumb and myofascial pain syndrome.
These problems do not just hit adults. Young musicians are at risk of suffering injury or setting down trigger points that may affect them later in life. A Bonnie Prudden Myotherapist can help reduce pain, increase range of motion and show you how you can reduce the risk of repetitive stress injury.