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March 13, 2016

Knowing What Triggers Your Playing-Related Pain

Knowing What Triggers Your Playing-Related Pain

Have you ever experienced playing-related pain or discomfort? For musicians, playing-related pain can disguise itself and show up through a variety of symptoms including soreness, tenderness, weakness, tightness or aching. In more serious cases, feelings of restricted mobility or a loss of motor strength & control may be present. Now we tend to shrug off and ignore most of these symptoms for one reason or another: you may feel it’s a tiny issue that will go away; perhaps you always believe that soreness is a natural part of muscle strengthening & conditioning; maybe the belief of ‘no pain, no gain’ has been instilled in your learning and development. Those things may be true – however, while we continue to think those thoughts, we continue to disassociate our pain with our musical practice and disengage ourselves with personal reflection.

I’ve experienced these symptoms myself – along with serious episodes of overuse and forearm tendonitis – at various times throughout my career to date; I know all too well the emotional weight that playing-related injury concerns can carry (e.g. when you want to play your instrument but know you can’t… when you’re cancelling rehearsals, gigs or tours because you know you’re physically not up for the task… or when you’re struggling to perform basic household tasks without pain). The list of limitations you feel is long and debilitating. Understandably, feelings of frustration, isolation and despair ensue because: 1) it comes as a surprise – you were not anticipating the onset of playing-related pain; and 2) on a deeper level, you’re out of alignment with your core personal values of creativity, contribution and self-expression. 

It is therefore vitally important to understand this question:

What triggers the onset of my playing-related pain?

This is a question you need to ask yourself not only during instances of pain, injury or panic, but also when you are feeling 100% fit and healthy. Why? Because awareness is the key; you need to know exactly what activities, postures and movements are causing you grief or not serving you as well as they could be.

Here are the dominating risk factors that contribute to my playing-related pain:

  • Unnecessary tension, particularly in the upper arm/shoulder area
  • Lifting heavy gear (exacerbated when I’m not using a trolley. Get yourself a trolley!)
  • Lack of warming up or stretching (a.k.a “playing cold”)
  • Not cooling down after a demanding performance or practice session
  • Excessive computer use coupled with drumming
  • Playing beyond my physical limits
  • Increased playing workload (accumulation of tension from multiple gigs, lugging gear, etc)

Now there are many other risk factors that could be contributing to your playing-related pain. A recent study I conducted with 38 tertiary drum kit players around Australia (you can read here) illustrated these factors as the most prevalent:

  • Unnecessary tension (78%)
  • Carrying heavy gear (52%)
  • Poor technique (39%)
  • Long practice sessions (39%)
  • Inefficient posture (36%)

Other factors included a lack of muscular strength, lack of body awareness, technical flaws and personal perfectionism. 

Do you feel any of these injury risk factors? Are you consciously aware of the messages your body is telling you when you’re playing? If you’re lacking awareness, now’s the time to reflect.

1. Reflect on how much you’re REALLY doing

Playing time can stack up, particularly for the gigging musicians who may be jumping from one rehearsal to the next, spending hours and hours every day with their instrument, or facing the demands of being on the road touring. In this working environment, it’s easy to forget to take breaks, to remain in sedated sitting positions for long periods of time, to lose sleep, and to feel stress and burnout. All of these factors do not contribute to optimising your health as a musician, so it’s important to ask:

2. What are you doing about your pain?

If you are suffering severe discomfort, you cannot ignore the symptoms and continue playing. Listen to your body. Darin Workman sums this up perfectly:

When something goes wrong, your body has ways of telling you. The sign that we most commonly notice is pain. Unfortunately, most of us see this as the only sign, when in fact that is one of the last signs just before total breakdown. By the time you feel pain, you have missed the many signs before it that were telling you something was wrong. Some of these signs include awkwardness, stiffness, shaking, grinding, and so on.

To illustrate how our bodies tell us something is wrong, I would like to compare injury to a fire. If we are perceptive, we can hear the fire, smell the smoke, and even feel the heat. However, most of the time our minds are so preoccupied with other things that we do not recognise the signs until the fire alarm sounds.

Pain is our body’s fire alarm to warn us that problems exist. By the time an alarm sounds, the damage is progressing fast and becoming more difficult to stop. We can choose to ignore the alarm (ignore pain), or even turn it off (pain relievers, etc.), but that doesn’t mean the fire will go out. If you pay close attention to your body, the early signs that something is wrong become more obvious. A few of them are stiffness, uneasy feelings, or lack of fluidity as we play.

Beyond stretching, warming up and taking practice breaks, I personally recommend seeing a physiotherapist – one that actively works with performing artists – because it has been so crucially helpful to my recovery and wellbeing as a full-time musician. Of course, there are many therapy options available from acupuncture to dry needling to body awareness methods (Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, Qigong, etc) that mustn’t be ignored.

I encourage you to find the treatment that will work for you, however you will only discover what works if you are open-minded and realistic – you must accept that you cannot fight the battle of playing-related injury on your own. Speak with your teacher, other musicians and health professionals but most importantly, begin to educate yourself through self-assessment. Critical personal reflection and body awareness will reveal what triggers your playing-related pain and will put you on to the path of wellness and longevity as a musician.