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Musicians Injuries: OUCH, It Hurts When I Play (But Please Don’t Tell Me To Stop!)
This article will discuss injuries to musicians. For an expert perspective, I interviewed Dr. Sarah Mikeler, MD, MD. Dr. Mikeler is a former professional musician who focuses his practice on injuries in musicians.
1) What made you decide to specialize in musician injuries?
I have a very personal connection to musician injuries. I was trained as a classical clarinetist and during my senior year I started having problems with overplaying and poor posture. Unfortunately, like everyone else, I was told to push through the pain and maybe it would get better! Of course I didn’t, and in the end I couldn’t hold the instrument anymore, and my career as a clarinet player was ruined. So I decided to take up a new career helping other musicians, hopefully before they get to the point I was at! Chiropractic appeals to me because it embraces a whole paradigm of health care—as chiropractors, we diagnose and correct the cause rather than mask the symptoms.
2) How does treating musicians differ from treating the general population?
Often I tell people who don’t understand the specifics of musician injuries, “It just takes one thing to know.” As a musician, when you’re playing an instrument, it’s very difficult to explain to a doctor, physical therapist, or even another doctor what the mechanics look like. But when someone walks into my office and says they play flute, guitar, tuba, whatever, I know exactly what the physical components of playing their instrument are. This is a very important first step.
Second, you must not only have a good understanding of what goes into playing that instrument, but also be able to see the person playing it. Even when someone tells me they play the violin (I automatically think “well, they’re going to have head tilt to the left, right shoulder problems, etc…”) I’m often shocked to see how they’ve done over the years. While playing, they made themselves a little cookie!
So, on the first or second visit, all the musicians bring their instruments and I do a thorough analysis of their playing to see what they’re doing right and wrong. It may be that their position is contributing to the injury. Or maybe there is something about the instrument that we can change; It may just require a slight adjustment to the thumb position or an adjustment to the key position.
For example, I have very small hands, so it was difficult to reach some of the finger buttons on the clarinet, so I sawed them off, re-welded them in a different direction, and welded them in a different direction to reach them.
Third, it’s important to understand that there are some common causes of performance injuries. The most common are changes in repertoire, changes in instruments (such as a new mouthpiece or similar), changes in practice times, or upcoming literature. It would be very helpful if we could identify what the actor was doing recently to contribute to the injury.
Finally, especially for independent artists, it’s very important to understand that you can’t just pop a muscle relaxer and take a few weeks off. If these people took a few weeks off, they wouldn’t have a roof over their head or food on the table. While occasional breaks are necessary, I often take a holistic approach to treating actors, tweaking and fixing what I can within the specific constraints of current performances and upcoming events.
3) What is the most common injury in the office?
The most common injury in my office is the tie. The first is back/shoulder/upper neck pain – These terms can mean the same thing to a lot of people so I’m grouping them together – usually someone comes in and points to shoulder pain and pain, but what about me? What they are pointing to is their upper back or lower neck. This is often a function of poor posture or poor ergonomics. If we can figure out how to improve the overall posture and ergonomics, it tends to be a quick fix.
And the second most common injury is hand and arm pain. You wouldn’t believe how many people come in with numbness and tingling in their hands and fingers only to find out that the problem isn’t their hands or fingers at all. , but it is slightly above the arm and is easily treated once properly diagnosed. Or they come with tennis elbow – but they’ve never held a tennis racket in their life! In my workplace, I refer to tennis and golfers elbow as “musician’s elbow” because it is a repetitive strain injury. It’s really common and surprisingly easy to treat.
4) What can musicians do to prevent injuries?
First of all, don’t be a hero! There is no reason to study for hours without a break. Always remember to take a short break every 30 minutes of playing. Second, don’t play with pain. Pain signals will tell you that you are doing something wrong. Dealing with it will get you nowhere but more pain and worse down the road. Third, consider your ergonomics. If you sit down to play, is your chair right for you? Is it necessary to strain to see both the podium and the conductor during rehearsals? Do your hands bend in a weird way to play properly? This is not good either. Finally, seek the help of a professional who will not only help you with your current injuries, but also prevent future injuries and optimize your overall performance.
More information about Dr. Sarah Mikeler and her Toronto-based chiropractic practice focusing on injuries for musicians can be found at http://www.drsarah.ca.
Pay attention to the pain signals your body is sending you to listen to Sarah’s advice! Admitting you have a physical problem doesn’t make you a musician – it just means you’re a very smart musician who will be playing for years!!
This article was originally published on the Muses Muse Songwriter’s Resource website (February 2005) at http://www.musesmuse.com.
(c) Copyright 2005 Linda Dessau.
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