Pain is complicated, frustrating, and can interfere with a musician’s mental state, ability to practice, perform, and participate in daily activities. Unfortunetly, musicians of all ages are prone to repetitive stress injuries. A recent systematic study suggests that anywhere from 62-93% of musicians will develop a performance-related injury during thir life (1).
A performance-related injury can be defined as any tightness, tension, achiness, tenderness, pain, or other physical symptoms that interfere with one’s ability to play their instrument at their accustomed level.
Consistent injury prevention can help prevent the accumulation of pain, and lower the risk of injury. But, due to the demands of being a musican, sometimes pain isn’t so easily preventable.
With that said, if you are experiencing your first bout of pain or are going through a performance-related injury, it is important to have a plan. Part of developing a plan is combining a mix of reflection, awareness, and compartmentalization, so you can focus on taking the approiate action steps.
This isn’t all encompassing, but my goal is that these questions can serve as a guide for those who may experience pain and are having a hard time identifying what might be going on. Again, is it the entire solution? No! But it has been very helpful for me and the musicians I have worked with in the past. Here is a list of 6 questions to ask yourself when you start experiencing pain. I HIGHLY recommend taking your time and journaling about these questions - the more information you have, the better!
1. What type of pain am I experiencing?
2. What were the events leading up to pain? Can you identify any factors?
3. Have I experienced this pain before? Are there any similar factors to previous experiences?
4. Am I in the inflammation stage of the injury cycle?
5. What can I learn from this situation?
6. What can I do based upon situation? Are there any habits or boundaries I can set in my life to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
Some of these may seem self-explanatory, but context is always key. Let’s dive deeper into each question.
What type of pain am I experiencing and how bad is it?
Pain is a personal experience that can be hard to quantify and describe, but if we, as musicians, can start develping language around pain, it can be easier to communicate to a medical professional or health and wellness professional (such as myself) about what you might be experiencing. It also makes their job easier!
Here is a short list of different physical descriptors you could experience:
Tightness - can be described as a pulling sensation, or muscles may feel shortened or activated.
Numbness - feeling that is similar to having your foot or arm “fall asleep.” This can also be described as losing feeling in an area.
Clicking or popping - joints or bones may click or pop through certain movements.
Achiness - can be described as a constant, dull-pain
Fatigue - low energy, feeling of being tired, can be over a short or long period of time
Burning sensation - feeling of a burn that can feel shallow or deep
Pulling sensation - feeling of a pulling in your muscles when you perform certain movements. Also synonymous with tightness.
Warmness - muscles will literally feel warm or hot
Acute or sharp pain - immediate pain that can make you say, “Ouch!”
What were the events leading up to the pain? Can you identify any factors?
Think of a period of time that led up your perception of pain. This could be a few days, a week, or even a month. Was there one singular event that caused you to experience pain? Was there a string of events leading up to it? Can you identify any factors that could contribute to your perception of pain?
Some factors might include:
Sitting down for prolonged periods of time
Intense rehearsal schedule
Lack of sleep
Eating poor quality foods
Carrying around heavy loads in weird positions for long periods of time (such as carrying musical equipment, luggage, or your instrument)
Stressful work environment
Poor movement quality
Poor alignment/postural imbalances
How is this situation similar or different from the last time I experienced this pain?
Are there any factors that are similar or different?
What can you learn or take away from comparing the two events?
Am I in the inflammation stage of the injury cycle?
Review the injury cycle and see if you can identify which stage you are in. Are you in the tissue trauma stage and simply experiencing the natural progression of breaking down muscle tissue, or are you in the inflammation stage? Or perhaps you have developed an intense muscle knot or muscle spasm?
If you are in the inflammation stage, here are a few things you can do:
Recognize that inflammation is a naturally occurring cycle of your body trying to heal itself, that can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
Things to do if you cannot take time to let your body properly heal:
Ice the affected area for 10-20 minutes, 3x per day within the first 48-72 hours.
Take an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen
Load up on anti-inflammatory foods such as: olive oil, high fiber foods, tomatoes, nuts, fatt
fish (such as salmon), fruit, garlic, or turmeric.
Here are a few things you can do to speed up the process of recovery
1. Move your body! Go on a walk, or do some cardio or other movement related activity.
2. Hydrate and prioritize sleep
3. Avoid alcohol (alcohol is a major inflammatory stimulant)
4. Eat the rainbow - load up on nutritious foods (fruits, veggies, non-processed meats) of various colors that support your mind and body.
5. Avoid factors that put more load on your body (to the best of your ability). For example, if you are inflamed and have a few days off, avoid going straight to practicing your concerto or running through an intense audition list. This puts further load on your body and could prolong your recovery.
What can I learn from this situation? Are there any habits or boundaries I can set in my life to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
If you have never been in this situation before, were you able to identify any factors that led to your pain? Could these factors have been prevented? What can you do differently next time to make eliminate one or more factors?What can I do based upon situation? Are there any habits or boundaries I can set in my life to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
Depending on your health education, this question may be a difficult to answer. Please note that all of the factors listed above can contribute to your perception of pain. Although your action steps will change based upon your specific situation, here are some generalized thoughts to give you an idea of what you can do when you’re experiencing pain.
Generally, if you are in pain from prolonged periods of being in one position, I highly recommend moving! This could be a walk, swimming, light yoga, etc. I would avoid heavy strength training or intense yoga until your body returns back to pain-free movement.
Second, it’s okay to feel your feelings. Avoid jumping to alcohol or other ways to numb yourself to what you are experiencing, as this slows the recovery process and trains your brain to crave these stimulants when pain returns.
Prioritize recovery! This includes mindful movement, SMR, hydration, a high quality of deep sleep, and giving your body nutritious foods. It’s not complicated, but simple doesn’t always mean easy - especially if we resort back to our engrained habits.
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Kok, L. M., Huisstede, B. M., Voorn, V. M., Schoones, J. W., & Nelissen, R. G. (2016). The occurrence of musculoskeletal complaints among professional musicians: a systematic review. International archives of occupational and environmental health, 89(3), 373–396. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00420-015-1090-