The Musician’s Guide to Repetitive Strain Injury Treatment

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Music is one of the greatest gifts of humanity in the twenty-first century, and more people are enjoying it than ever. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, more people than ever have begun learning to play instruments for the first time.

Well, what else are you supposed to do with the extra free time? However, there are some unintended consequences with overplaying, and some can have lasting effects.

Fortunately, there are treatments available. Let’s talk about the common injuries and conditions musicians face as well as repetitive strain injury treatment options!

Most Common Musician Injuries

Before we talk about treatment options, let’s identify some of the most common conditions musicians will face and offer some advice on prevention.

Cumulative trauma or overuse injuries occur when somebody repeats the same motions over and over again. A pitcher in the MLB may experience this on a large scale, whereas a pianist may experience this on a smaller scale in their hands.

Either way, if you’re reading this without any current symptoms but you spend hours every week learning your instrument, then here’s what you need to know!

Vocal Strain

One of the most common instruments for musicians is their voice. Well, singing requires work from at least five different muscle groups, and those muscles were only intended to use for communication.

Of course, we needed the ability to scream for help evolutionarily, but if you’re spending hours of the day using those muscles, you’re pushing them past their intended limits.

Over time, your body adapts and you may feel comfortable singing for long periods. However, under the surface, issues may arise.

If you’re experiencing vocal strain, this may only get worse without treatment. We strongly suggest taking a break from singing until you are healed.

Hand & Wrist Injuries

Almost every instrument requires your hands to some degree. Whether you’re banging on the drums, playing jazz on the saxophone, or barring on an acoustic guitar, your hands and wrists are put to work.

Over time, this may lead to overuse syndrome or ligament injuries, which can cause a host of other issues.

Try your best to recognize when symptoms are worsening while playing and try to take precautions. If the pain is in your hands or wrists, that’s easy to self-massage or apply a heating source. Try to do that regularly, even if you’re not yet experiencing symptoms.

Nerve Compression

Nerve compression conditions affect 85 out of 100,000 people every year, and they occur when a nerve is squeezed too tightly, which can lead to other complications.

Unfortunately, these nerve entrapment conditions are common in many musicians. The most common examples include carpal tunnel, ulnar neuropathy (in the elbow), sciatica, and thoracic outlet syndrome, but the list goes on.

Depending on the type of instrument you play, you will be at greater risk for specific nerve compression syndromes.

For example, a drummer is more likely to develop sciatica than a violinist, as they are sitting for long periods while holding their feet, legs, knees, and hips in the same position to use the pedals. Conversely, a violinist is more likely to pinch a nerve in their neck because of the way they hold their violin in position.

Mild cases can be treated at home with some light stretching and rest while more severe cases may need medication, physical therapy, and even surgery.

Ligament Injuries & Tendinitis

In the hands, we have 27 bones, 34 muscles, and over 100 ligaments and tendons all capable of injury or strain. Unfortunately, that’s why so many musicians receive damage from overuse and repeated strain.

Back Injuries

Whether you play piano, guitar, or any other instrument, chances are you spend hours of the day sitting down. Unfortunately, this is one of the most common causes of back issues.

However, you’re not alone as a musician. As many as 80 percent of US adults will experience back pain in their lives, and your chances are even higher as a musician.

Well, a great way to help prevent these injuries is to stand more often. Humans have evolved to stand erect. Consequently, sitting or hunching will inevitably lead to back issues.

If you work at a job that requires long periods of sitting, and then you sit for your hobby, consider changing positions, trying to stand while playing, or taking frequent breaks to stretch or walk around.

Injury Prevention For Musicians

Whether it’s on the wrist, voice, or anywhere else on the body, any type of repetitive strain can lead to tissue breakdown in the muscles, joints, and even bones. Here are some tips on how to prevent the worst effects, regardless of the condition.

Stretching

Any personal trainer, fitness fanatic, or physical therapist will tell you that an overused muscle must be stretched. Whether the pain is in your wrist, back, or anywhere else, take the time to stretch the affected areas as much as possible.

Conversely, anything that will help relax the muscle should be done regularly, especially if you practice for multiple hours a day. Massage, heat compression, or warm baths may help relax the affected area, so see what works for you.

Again, these are preventative measures, and they may not help if the problem has already gotten out of hand.

Changing Positions

If you stay in one position the entire time you practice, the chances of compressing a nerve or “locking up” your joints increase dramatically. For that reason, we recommend changing your position, taking breaks, and adjusting periodically.

Ample Rest

Much like athletes, the muscles and joints used in creating music will require appropriate amounts of rest. Try to take at least one day off every week if possible, or at least have a couple of days where you only practice the basics.

When we get into fast metal riffs or long classical pieces, our brains are mostly focused on the challenge at hand. For that reason, we may not notice when we begin pushing our bodies past their abilities.

Consequently, stop before you have to worry about that. Take short breaks throughout your training sessions, give yourself time to recover, and most importantly, get a full night of sleep every night!

Repetitive Strain Injury Treatment

Now that you know about the most common musician injuries, we can talk about treatment. Here are some of the treatment options for the most common repetitive strain injuries musicians face.

Treatment For Carpal Tunnel

Carpal tunnel is one of the more serious conditions that occur after repetitive strains. If carpal tunnel is a concern, then we recommend visiting a hand specialist.

If you’re worried about developing carpal tunnel, then you can stretch out your wrist and ask a specialist for topical creams, but these are only preventative measures.

Remember, once it starts, carpal tunnel does not improve on its own. It can substantially reduce a person’s quality of life, especially if playing music is important to them. We rely on our hands for nearly all of our essential job functions, hobbies, and activities throughout the day.

Now, there are ways to manage the symptoms at home, and a specialist will help you with that. However, if the condition has persisted for weeks or months without treatment, we suggest talking to a specialist before trying anything else.

Because of advancements in medical technology, it’s never been easier to treat carpal tunnel. In fact, there’s even a no-stitch procedure available that can get you back to doing what you love as soon as possible!

Treatment For Vocal Strain

You use your voice every single day for work, personal relations, and your music career. You may not realize just how frequently you talk until it starts to hurt.

Unfortunately, vocal strains are very different from a standard sore throat, and if you continue to overuse your voice while it is healing, it could cause other serious issues.

Of course, there is the classic remedy of resting, drinking hot tea with lemon and honey, and avoiding foods or drinks such as:

  • Crackers
  • Chips
  • Soda
  • Alcohol
  • Raw vegetables
  • Acidic fruits
  • Spicy foods or seasonings

The list goes on. Try to drink plenty of water and rest as much as you can.

From there, once you believe you are fully recovered, you can begin to do some light vocal exercises and work your way up over the course of the coming days or weeks. Going right back into long training hours will have you right back where you started.

If you follow these steps and the strain persists for longer than a few days, then we recommend talking to a specialist as soon as possible. However, in most cases, vocal strain can be treated at home.

Treatment For Nerve Compression

As we mentioned earlier, it depends on the severity of your case. If a “pinched nerve” occurs randomly one day, we recommend finding treatment immediately.

In most cases, it may go away on its own, but that’s not a risk worth taking. If it doesn’t get better, it could lead to permanent nerve damage, imbalances, or further injuries.

To manage the pain, most people will hold the affected area in one position. If that is anywhere along your spine (including your neck), this could quickly lead to issues in your surrounding muscles and extremities.

Remember, your spine transports all of the nerves in your body. For that reason, if you have a compressed nerve in the area, don’t take any chances and call your doctor immediately. If it ends up going away on its own, that’s excellent, but it could just as easily end your music career or cause serious debilitation.

If the pain persists, talk to your physician about treatment or ask for a referral to a specialist.

Back Injuries

Again, this is separate from a pinched or compressed nerve, which can easily occur in the back. Instead, we’re talking about chronic back pain due to long-term sitting.

Fortunately, there are some at-home exercises that can help you mitigate your back pain, improve your posture, and allow you to sit for longer without discomfort.

First, especially for slouchers (talking to you, guitarists!), start by kneeling down in front of a small table. Place your elbows on the table and try to push your chest down to the floor.

By doing this, you will stretch some of the middle back muscles (erector spinae), your pectoralis minor, and your lattisimus dorsi, all of which tend to tighten, forcing your upper body to hunch, which is a common cause of pain.

Next, you can try to use a resistance band by holding it in front of you with your arms straight (at shoulder level) and trying to spread your arms out as wide as possible, even behind you. This will help strengthen your upper back muscles and stretch your pectoralis minor, which can help reverse the effects of slouching.

Lastly, you can try to stretch your lower back in multiple directions by trying to touch your toes (keep your knees straight) and attempting a floor bridge. Be careful and take your time with these.

If these don’t work or if the pain is severe, then talk to a specialist immediately. Back pain is debilitating and can dramatically reduce a person’s quality of life when left to worsen over time. Don’t let that happen to you!

Get Back To Practicing

Now that you know more about common injuries for musicians and repetitive strain injury treatment, there’s no time to wait. The sooner you start preventing or treating these common conditions, the sooner you can get back to doing what you love.

Reach out to a specialist today, keep following our blog for the latest health tips, and feel free to contact us with any questions!

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