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Wrist easy: RSI and musicians
An article by TripF

I'll admit it now: I used to be about as sceptical about the existence of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) as was possible. Wasn't it one of those conditions no one can actually prove exists (or not) - like Seasonal Affective Disorder or 'yuppie flu'? An ailment of the week in the newspaper at best, a convenient excuse for malingerers at worst?

And then, of course, I got it. It began with a burning sensation in my right wrist, as if it was being heated from inside. I assumed it was a sprain and hoped it would go away: it didn't, in fact the localised pain was beginning to spread. One of my co-workers had seen my discomfort and, having had it pretty badly over the years himself, told me to get it checked out or (by God) he would slap me with his good hand. I could see that behind his bluff exterior, he meant well. Alas, the visit to my GP gave an idea of what people can expect: 'RSI hmmm? More likely to be a trapped nerve'. I was prescribed anti-inflammatory pills, which did nothing except play merry havoc with my digestive system. So much for the regular NHS.

Luck was on my side - in that I work for a disability charity that employs best practice when it comes to such queries. One visit to an occupational health officer later, I now have a new, more ergonomic chair to work in, a bigger mouse and a flat screen a safe distance from my keyboard. It seems posture and over-use of the mouse were the primary causes of my discomfort, although my guitar playing didn't help. A few changes to the way I work have alleviated, if not eradicated, the problem.

I never forget I'm lucky in many respects. I spotted the signs easily enough, and had exemplary backup from my employer, not to mention skilled specialists to kit me out. I felt obliged to try my GP first, but it appears many discount the condition out of hand. Interestingly, even the Occupational Health specialist finally diagnosed 'Mouse/Wrist forearm'. Health professionals are loath to use the RSI moniker, but is this a result of new, more specific diagnosis procedures or a continuing unwillingness to acknowledge RSI as a legit condition? I couldn't possibly comment...

So, what does all this have to do with music? Instrumental musicians are, unsurprisingly, a high risk group for all kinds of repetitive motion-related injuries, such as bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and many more. People who use a mouse and computer keyboard a lot as well are doubling their risk: I just thank God on a daily basis I never got into computer gaming.

Q: So Trip, what can I do to combat the onset of RSI?
A: I'm glad you asked. Here are a few pointers.

Are you playing too hard or too awkwardly? Friends can be useful in such a situation as, unless you play in front of a full length mirror, you probably don't know what you look like when you're playing. Players often need to reduce force, find postures that keep joints in the middle of their range of motion, use larger muscle groups when possible, and reduce body usage that involves fixed, tensed positions.

You should ask yourself the following questions now and again: Are you using an instrument that is too large or awkward for you? Is it set up optimally for you? Could you use lighter strings or get a keyboard with a lighter action? Is there a strap or stand that could make playing less stressful? Although most people are creatures of habit when it comes to both instrument and technique, bad habits can be overcome with a bit of application.

Footballers do a fair bit of stretching, light jogging etc before any game - they know to omit this is an invitation to injury. We musicians put similar demands on our fine motor musculature and should do the same*. A bit of flexing, shaking and so on before, after and during if possible can ease the strain of playing in top gear. * Except the jogging, unless you really want to.

Constant tension and repetitive motion does not allow the body to flush away metabolic waste products and this is traumatic to tissues over time. 'No Pain, No Gain' is, to put it bluntly, a maxim for thickies if you're a musician. If it hurts, sit down and have a KitKat. Is it worse to have to not play for a few weeks/months . . . or to risk never playing again? That marathon jam when Binky the lead guitarist finally nailed that middle eight may have seemed productive, but you could have saved time with a bit of individual preparation, and saved your muscles at the same time. The risk of physical damage aside, taking breaks in a band situation is a good idea anyway; it keeps rehearsals going smoothly and ensures boredom doesn't set in.

When you're young, or even just young at heart, you feel invincible. Many folks have the time and energy to be members of several bands/acts at once. Remember it's not just your time you're playing with: I'm not pooh-poohing you renaissance types, but be careful with the 'what you put in/get out' balance. Your hands, arms and shoulders will thank you.

Ignoring your body's cries for help may work in the short term, but never forget pain is your body yelling that it's in trouble. Go to your GP first, but you can always get a second opinion.

Pains may be caused or aggravated by other things you do frequently. Computer use is the classic example, but sport, carrying children, darts down the pub, spanking your partner, indeed far too many things that are fun can have a cumulative effect. I don't want to be a killjoy, honest - just prioritise. You may want to reconsider that 27th game of Quake the night before your gig.

Remember, prevention is the best cure and all that. Take care of yourself, and such issues shouldn't arise. However, if RSI or any related condition appears - be patient. RSI won't go away overnight, but with careful attention, it will go. Personally, computer stuff aside, an enforced layoff from the guitar and especially the bass was the only way I could begin to recover, and it has been more annoying than I could have imagined. My dusty guitars seemed to be mocking me from their stands and I actually had to put them in the cupboard for a few weeks to put them out of temptation's way. After a couple of months, I was up to playing just a little, and I can now handle about twenty minutes or so at a time. See you on an open mike stage near you soon.

Further Information:

Repetitive Strain Injury Association
Helpline: 0800 018 5012

Wrist easy: RSI and musicians ©2004 - 2024 TripF & Virtually Acoustic.