Starting a career in music comes with many challenges: buying the equipment, building your exposure and of course refining your art to become unique and loved by your fans. What many musicians often don’t realise though, is that the physical toll of playing could curb your career long before your creativity.
What is an RSI?
Repetitive Strain Injury is a medical term used to describe an injury that stems from prolonged, repetitive and awkward hand and wrist motions. When muscles are damaged, the area becomes inflamed and is healed over with scar tissue. With repeated damage, this scar tissue builds and leads to thickening of the muscle or tendon, and more pain. You can read more about RSIs in general by clicking here.
How do musicians get RSIs?
Musicians are no strangers to RSIs, there are many careers that have been cut short by the condition, and many of the artists playing today have suffered from an RSI of some sort. A long career of playing an instrument will naturally take its toll on the body, but many musicians inadvertently accelerate this process through poor posture and stiff playing. Manipulating instruments for long periods of time is also an unnatural act, and artists who play long concerts regularly can compound the damage to their joints.
So what are the warning signs?
To avoid the long term effects of the condition, it is important to understand the warning signs. As with any exercise you will likely experience fatigue while playing, but this may be a warning in disguise. Artists will often complain of burning and cramping in their hands, but if you find this to be worsening during playing, and starting to continue for a long time after you stop, then you may be experiencing the onset of an RSI.
You may also be experiencing longer term weakness in your hands and wrists. If you find that in your daily life you are finding it harder to grasp objects this may be cause for concern. Another common complaint specific to musicians is finding it harder to carry gear to and from concerts. Experiencing pain while holding heavy cases of equipment is one of the most common factors that lead people to realising they have a problem.
Our tips to help avoid RSIs
While your career may inevitably lead to an RSI, there are ways to postpone it, and limit the effects it will have on you playing.
1. Warm Up/Cool Down
Playing an instrument is like playing a sport. You are asking your muscles to work hard for extended periods of time, and it is important to prepare them for this beforehand. Gently “switching on” your muscles with stretches and light exercises will help to ease your muscles and tendons into gear. Spending 5-10 minutes before playing warming up will make a long term difference to the health of your hands and wrists. Similarly, after playing it is important to stretch off your hands, and if you are experiencing pain and swelling, an ice pack and rest will help to control the inflammation and give your hands some respite.
2. Take regular breaks
Playing for hours on end will take a toll on the muscles you use. It is important therefore to take regular short breaks to allow your hands to cool down. The burning sensations you experience when playing are your muscles becoming worn, and pushing them further and further will lead to damage. Whenever possible, put down your instrument and gently stretch off your hands and wrists to release the build up of lactic acid. You will find that when you continue playing your hands will be more fresh and playing will become more pleasurable.
3. Improve your posture
Giving your body the support it needs will help you to prevent injuries, but it is also important not to become rigid, move with the music. Allowing your body to flow with the sound will prevent your muscles from locking up, and you will notice a drop in soreness and you become looser.
4. Avoid changing your conditions
Where possible, avoid making sudden changes to the amount you play, and where you practise. Treat your art like fitness, build your body up gradually allowing your muscles to strengthen, and give them the ideal environment to play in. Playing in cold conditions will put undue stress on your muscles as they have to work harder to warm up.
5. Make changes to your daily life
Everyone should aim to be healthy, but many people don’t realise just how beneficial it can be. Eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of water will give your body the fuel it needs to perform, and also to recover afterwards, making you less likely to strain a muscle and develop an RSI.
What if I have an RSI?
If you believe you have already developed an RSI, then it is very important that you seek medical advice. RSIs are not conditions that will simply “go away”, and they may develop to be so serious that you could have to retire from your musical career. Seeing a Hand and Wrist Specialist is key, as they will be able to diagnose your symptoms and recommend the best treatment for you.
What are the treatment options for an RSI?
Most RSIs can be treated very simply, and often don’t require a surgical option. A common solution is to splint the affected finger in place and straighten them out. This will allow the muscles and tendons some rest and should help them to heal fully. In conjunction with this, anti-inflammatory medication is often employed to assist in the reduction of the swelling.
For other, less serious cases, heat and ice packs paired with physical therapy often yield great results, as this helps to not only heal any damage that has been caused, but helps to strengthen your muscles and prevent the injury from recurring as often.
Finally, serious injuries can be treated with steroid injections, but this method is not useful in all cases as they can present side effects that may not outweigh the positives. If all of the above fail, then surgical treatments may be available, but these are only for the most extreme cases where there are complications with nerves, tendons and muscles.
Who can I talk to?
As with all injuries, treating them as early as possible is always the best course of action, and will result in the use of more holistic methods. Ladan Hajipour is a Hand and Wrist specialist based in Manchester. She has great experience with RSIs at all stages of developments, and is highly accredited for her professionalism and patient care. If you are a musician who is worried about the effects of an RSI on your performance, contact Ladan Hajipour today!
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