Advice from a Certified Hand Therapist for Musicians

“…the instrument becomes an extension of the body, for example, the bow of the violinist or the drumsticks of the drummer.” – Schlinger, 2006.

Many musicians say they “merge” with their instrument when they are playing – that they lose themselves and do not know where they stop and the instrument begins. This process leads to beautiful music; however, it can lead to less body awareness, pain and overuse injuries related to playing their instrument.

Statistics estimate more than 39,000 people are formally employed as musicians in the United States. This does not include the large numbers of children and teenagers just starting out, or devoted amateur and professional musicians playing night and weekend shows. Among this large number of musicians, studies have shown that the percentage who report having play-related pain may actually be higher than in other professions. In some groups, more than 90% of musicians surveyed reported having some type of pain.

Neck, arm and hand problems tend to be the most commonly reported for musicians. Some examples are:

  • Neck and shoulder pain and cramping
  • Numbness, tingling and heaviness in hands, arms or fingers
  • Tremors in the hand
  • Pain in the wrist and fingers that become “stuck” in a bent position

The highly repetitive and sustained nature of playing an instrument is one of the most common reasons musicians develop painful problems. Many instruments require sustained neck, arm and hand positions that cause pressure on sensitive nerves and muscles. Combine this with lengthy or awkward sitting or standing postures and transporting instruments, and the risk for problems increases.

There are several things musicians can do to prevent overuse problems:

  • Maintain a healthy diet, and limit consumption of caffeine and nicotine, as these can make nerves and tissues more prone to injury.
  • Make sure to get enough sleep and develop methods to manage stress and anxiety.
  • Develop a routine for warming up before and after practice and playing. This could include stretches for the back, neck and arms, as well as breathing exercises.
  • Enlist the help of a certified hand therapist. Qualified hand therapists have specialized training in the recognition and treatment of hand and upper extremity problems. They can help analyze playing habits and look for areas that could potentially cause problems in the future, and then develop a personalized prevention program that fits your needs.

Kimberly Masker is a certified hand therapist and a member of the American Society of Hand Therapists and an affiliate member of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand.