Musicians Are Athletes, Too!

How do you picture the stereotypical athlete? A tall, muscular young man, dressed in basketball shoes, driving a ball down the court? Or maybe a petite female wearing fleece and ice skates, leaning into a double axel on an ice rink? But what about a middle-aged man in glasses, dressed in a tuxedo and leaning over his cello under the hot lights of a concert stage? The truth is, each of these people is an athlete in his or her own right…but the man in the tux is also a musician!

Webster’s dictionary defines an athlete as “a person possessing the natural or acquired traits--such as strength, agility, and endurance--that are necessary for physical exercise or sports.” Musicians require an intricate balance of these traits in order to master their instruments. They are legitimate athletes who experience pain and dysfunction related to their musical practice and performance routines.

All too often, however, musicians’ pain is overlooked because they are not considered “athletic” injuries. Music-related injuries are much more common than one might think. There are several reasons for this—one of the most significant is that musicians usually start intense practice schedules at a very young age, which can take a toll on developing bones and muscles. Intrinsic factors influencing pain are body structure, joint laxity, and overall conditioning levels. External factors like the demands of a specific instrument, the amount of time spent practicing, playing posture, and the level of musicianship can also increase the risk of injury.

The injuries most common to musicians are repetitive overuse injuries, such as TMJ dysfunction, shoulder tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, lateral epicondylitis, and low back pain. Due to the demands of hectic rehearsal and performance schedules, many musicians do not make the time to participate in a regular overall conditioning program, leading to poor postural control and decreased overall endurance. Some musicians suffer from bad habits picked up from years of practicing in awkward positions.

It is unfortunate, then, that many musicians do not seek medical help for their injuries, instead continuing to play through their pain. They may fear that health professionals do not have the technical knowledge needed to relate to a musician’s job-related problems. Or, they may also fear that admitting to injury or pain could put them at risk of losing a job.

As movement dysfunction experts, physical therapists are well positioned to advise musicians on how to reduce their playing-related pain. A personalized physical therapy evaluation and treatment program will provide expert analysis of an individual musician’s pain and dysfunction. Once these deficits are identified, the therapist can then make appropriate recommendations for strength and flexibility exercises to alleviate the physical stress caused by playing an instrument. The therapist can also suggest ways to adapt rehearsal seating to minimize back pain, recommend appropriate pacing for practice sessions, and provide hands-on therapeutic techniques to reduce muscular tightness. The therapist will often have the musician bring his or her instrument into the clinic to analyze playing posture and suggest appropriate modifications.

Musicians should never be afraid to seek out medical care for their injuries. Ignoring the pain could lead to a more severe, chronic issue…or even cause serious problems with musical technique. Fortunately, physical therapy is a wonderful resource for those struggling with pain and dysfunction related to making music. If you are playing in pain, see a physical therapist who focuses on orthopedic issues to receive a personalized evaluation and treatment program…and get back on the road to making beautiful, pain-free music!

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About The Author

Tara Banick has a doctorate in physical therapy from Rosalind Franklin University of Health Sciences. She is also a musician, having played violin, viola, and piano for over 22 years. She has played in the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra and Bradley University Chamber Orchestra, and she continues to play with her own string quartet for weddings and recitals. She practices therapy at the IBJI Libertyville location.