Preventing repetitive strain is almost as important as practicing.
It starts with the calluses you wear as a badge of honor shortly after learning to play guitar. But now, years later, you’re starting to feel that sharp pain in your wrist or the dull ache of your knuckles and it’s not quite as fun.
Practice makes perfect, but what if all that practice is taking a toll on your body?
Being a musician is one of the most creatively fulfilling endeavors. Everything from learning an instrument to composing your own music requires the use of your whole self—mind and body.
And that level of commitment comes with baggage.
Not only are you spending countless hours practicing and perfecting your songs, but the life of a musician involves carrying heavy equipment, late nights, and even emotional strain.
Taxing as they may be, these challenges feel worthwhile in the face of a new song learned or a performance done well.
But what happens when you begin to develop pain in your hands, arms, shoulders, or back from prolonged playing?
This phenomenon is known as RSI, or repetitive strain injury, and it’s no joke. The muscles throughout your body can become weak and agitated from performing the same movements on repeat year after year.
The good news? This problem isn’t nearly the career-altering injury it’s chalked up to be.
With some adjustments to your routine, both with playing music and outside of it, you can recover from this injury and prevent it in the future.
How Does Repetitive Strain Happen?
In order to properly treat RSI you must consider its cause—and it’s not as simple as you may think.
Most musicians dealing with Repetitive Strain will attribute it to improper form or too many hours in the recording studio, both of which can contribute to muscle overuse.
However, there’s a lot more at play.
Muscular strains can be induced by different types of stress that are placed on your body. These forms of stress can be chemical, physical, or emotional.
Different Types of Stress
Chemical Stress manifests in several different ways.
After a great gig, you might want to celebrate with the band and order a few drinks. A few drinks turns into many drinks, which happens a couple of times a week because of your busy gig schedule.
You could also be taking Ibuprofen pretty regularly to deal with some arm pain you’ve been having from your recently increased band practice schedule.
Or you might just be grabbing some fast food multiple times a week because you’re too busy to cook at home.
All of these, while fine in moderation, can affect your body’s chemical balance and lead to some stress-induced symptoms, such as sluggishness and trouble sleeping.
Physical stress could include a 5-hour practice with your band, a long day playing in the recording studio, or a week of non-stop shows.
Having to play for an extended period over many days will stress your body out, and eventually, you’ll start to feel it.
Emotional stress is the stress we most commonly think of when people say “stress.”
Losing a job, having problems in a relationship, or trying to keep up with the hectic day-to-day of being a musician, will inevitably stress out even the toughest of performers.
These types of stress work in tandem with one another and have an overall impact on your health. This is why it’s crucial to identify not just the physical aspects of your playing but your lifestyle as well.
If you’re having a tough time in your friend group, popping Ibuprofen for your back that’s killing you, and playing 5-hour gigs every night, you’ve got the perfect recipe for RSI.
How is Repetitive Strain Injury Diagnosed?
RSI is a general diagnosis referring to some kind of tendonitis and muscle pain felt in a performer’s hands, arms, shoulders, or back.
A licensed doctor or physical therapist can make a proper diagnosis. If you’re experiencing acute pain, seeing a medical provider is your best bet.
However, if you’re experiencing some aching in your hands, arms, shoulder or back, you might be in the early stages of developing RSI. From there, you’ve got a prime opportunity to readjust your stressors and start on the road to recovery!
Identifying Repetitive Strain for Different Instruments
Every instrument requires a unique set of muscles needed to play them.
Therefore, different instrumentalists can develop different forms of RSI. It’s important to factor in the instrument you’re playing when treating or preventing RSI as that’ll help inform your recovery method.
The most common culprits of RSI are: guitar, piano, drums, and violin.
Guitarists tend to develop RSI in their fingers and wrists. The dexterity needed for the fingers to change chord shapes and move up and down the neck can prove pretty taxing.
Look out for any pain in those areas if you’re an avid guitar player, as that will be your warning sign.
For piano, your fingers and back can be injured most easily. The back is primarily injured due to poor form; if you’re slouching a bit over the keys, you might develop some pain.
It also doesn’t look very professional if you’re a performer, so try to avoid it!
The fingers can be pretty active, especially for classical pianists, so keep an eye out for pain in your ivory ticklers.
Drummers tend to feel RSI mostly in their backs and arms. Drumming is one of the more active instruments to play, and if you’re playing in a metal band, each show might feel a bit like a marathon.
It’s a great workout, but it really stresses your back and arms. Monitor those areas if you’ve been practicing more than usual and begin to feel some stiffness or pain.
Finally, violinists usually develop pain in their bowing arm.
Be on the lookout for poor technique! An excessively stiff arm and wrist can cause the muscles to take on more work than they need to, leading to RSI.
Ways You Can Prevent and Treat Repetitive Strain Injury
Preventing repetitive strain injury starts with analyzing your habits as a musician and as a person.
You can place stress on your body not just from your frequent practice but also from external factors like diet and emotion.
Preventing RSI requires balancing stress, whether chemical, physical, or emotional.
It can be helpful to think of yourself as a musician-athlete. Athletes practice hours and hours each day to compete at a high level, and you’re doing the same thing!
However, athlete’s direct their entire lifestyle to help support this intense form of training. Sleep, nutrition, and exercise are all optimized to keep the athlete performing at an intense capacity without injuring themselves.
Mostly, musicians tend to go hard on the “exercise” (or practicing) principle and neglect sleep and nutrition (as well as other forms of exercise).
Proper rest and nutrition can help aid both your physical and mental dexterity and relieve stress.
Prevention is key! An intensive warm-up routine can go a long way to build your capacity for longer practices.
There are several different methods for warming up your hands, arms, and back for a productive band practice.
However, a tried-and-true method is simply to play a slow, simple piece of music with deliberate emphasis on proper form.
After you feel like you’re running on all cylinders, you can jump into more technical pieces you may be working on.
However, do not neglect a good warm-up. That, combined with a healthy lifestyle filled with solid sleep and proper nutrition, can go a long way to preventing and treating RSI!
Do you have any favorite ways you like to warm up for band practice? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!
Also, if you’d like to stay up to date with what I’m working on, check out BetterSongs.com and download a free How to Write a Song eBook.