How to Respond to Playing-Related Pain

Serap Bastepe-Gray

by Serap Bastepe-Gray, MD, MM, OT

Musicians are notorious about waiting too long to seek treatment for pain or discomfort. They tend to believe that – whatever it is – it will go away on its own. As “athletes of the small muscles,” they also suffer from something of a cultural bias against admitting injury. But it is important to respond to any pain you are feeling during practice or performance; ignoring it only tends to make it worse.

If you are practicing and feel new pain, the best strategy is to stop and rest for about 20 minutes. If the pain goes away, it may have been a “warning pain” – and you’ll want to take action to make sure it doesn’t come back. You can often avoid further pain by analyzing the passage during which the pain was perceived and correcting your mechanics, and setting reasonable limits on the duration and intensity of your practice sessions. (Whether you are experiencing pain or not, it’s important to take short periods of rest – about 5 minutes every half-hour of practice – to allow your brain and muscles time to rest and refresh.)

For ongoing or repetitive pain, or other symptoms such as tingling and burning sensations or a loss of motor control, you should not hesitate to seek help from a board-certified physician with an interest in musicians’ playing-related disorders. New pain that does not go away with rest most likely indicates the development of a problem. I recommend temporary cessation of any playing activity and seeking medical help immediately. The Performing Arts Medicine Association has a referral web page that lists health care professionals who treat musicians along with their location and contact information.

A specialist in Performing Arts Medicine has the training and expertise not just to diagnose and treat the condition you may be experiencing, but also to understand the underlying causes and offer advice about adjustments you can make in your playing to avoid further injury. They may also refer you to other specialists in neurology, orthopedics, or physical medicine and rehabilitation to ensure you receive the proper level of care. Your specialist is your partner, and working closely with your medical team gives you the best odds at being able to return to playing, and maintaining the healthy habits which will prolong peak performance.

Of course, recovery is not a smoothly linear process, and symptoms can fluctuate from day to day. Musicians often struggle with feelings of anxiety, guilt, and doubts of self-worth when they are recovering from injury and away from playing. Counseling can help, as can training in stress management techniques. Preserving musician identity by engaging in musical activities that do not require physical work on the instrument (for example, theoretical analysis of musical works, or comparative listening of performances by various musicians) will also be important. Additionally, educating yourself on the genesis of injury, injury first aid, and pain management techniques will empower you to be an active participant in your own recovery process. Some research has shown that out of every 10 musicians, about eight will experience a playing-related injury or disorder, and only two of those will fully recover. One will stop playing altogether. You can improve your odds of avoiding or recovering from injury if you act at the first sign of pain.

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Excerpted and posted with permission from StayThirsty Magazine. Please visit the full interview here.

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