Repetitive stress injuries can be a painful and frustrating obstacle for students. Since the problem is so frequent and debilitating, students should be aware of the causes of pain so they can prevent injury. According to Carol Saunders at the health office, one to three students are treated for pain in their muscles, joints, and tendons each week. Because of the physically repetitive demands of practicing, most of these injuries happen to musicians. But they aren’t the only ones susceptible. Typing is another common cause of serious injury, as well as any activity that is repetitive.
“Any time you do an act that puts your arm in a position that it’s not used to being in, you are prone to tendonitis,” says Ernestine Whitman, the flute professor in the conservatory. She added that while some instruments have a more natural setup, others, like the flute, violin, or viola, are more unnatural because the instruments must be held up for long periods of time.
Saunders said the standard treatment for tendonitis, and other injuries that are common in hands and arms, is to stop doing whatever causes the pain for as long as possible. “If it hurts, it needs rest,” says Whitman. Taking anti-inflammatory drugs, using splints to allow inflamed joints and tendons to rest, and icing the area after practice are other treatments. Acupuncture, acupressure, and massage can be legitimate ways to relieve pain. All three are available at the Massage Connection on College Avenue.
Applying ice can reduce swelling, but in some cases, heat can be more beneficial. There is an appliance available in stores that raises the temperature of hands or feet. Because of structural contours, when using a heated pad to warm up hands, the heat only reaches the highest points like knuckles and fingers, and not the lower places, like the grooves between knuckles and between fingers, where the heat is needed. Paraffin baths can solve this problem. Revlon offers the Moisture Stay Paraffin Bath. After a hand (or foot, or elbow) is submerged in the wax, it solidifies and molds to the contours of the body. It warms up hands to relieve joints, and after fifteen minutes can be peeled off. It also moisturizes.
For many people, changing the approach to the instrument and practicing can be the most practical way to manage pain. Changing a hand position or spreading out practice time are two things that can reduce body fatigue. Modifications to the instrument itself are also possible.
Posture plays a significant role in tension and pain. Arm pain can be something that comes from the neck, because muscles and tendons are all connected. Generally, the correct sitting posture to use while playing piano, or other instruments, or typing, is to have a ninety degree angle at the knees, hips, and elbows. Angles should be minimized at the wrists and neck. For people unsure, or uncomfortable with their playing posture, the faculty at the conservatory is there to show how to hold specific instruments to avoid tension.
“Learning about the Alexander Technique is a good approach to ridding tensions from the body,” says Whitman, “because it is a more holistic approach to the spine.” The Feldenkreis method is another technique to develop optimal use of the body when practicing.
Whitman says that the number of hours needed for practice is something that is difficult to get around, because of pressure to for students to play in ensembles and prepare for lessons. However, the way those hours are spent can cause or prevent pain.
Using too much tension in the body when practicing is always a problem. Some things to avoid are using more pressure than what is needed, and not taking enough breaks. “Psychological stress can translate into physical stress,” says Whitman. This stress can be academic, emotional, or competitive. She suggests trying to set aside general stress when approaching the instrument.
There are many books about injuries form practicing and typing. The Athletic Musician, Playing Without Pain is being sold at Conkey’s on the music shelf.
Not being able to practice or type is hard news to take for ambitious students. Pain can be so bad, and the amount of time needed to heal so long, that it can interfere with success in school. There have been many students who have gone for months without being able to type, play an instrument, or even write with a pencil. For people in this situation, there are resources on campus available to help.
Student Academic Services can provide appropriate accommodations for learning, such as receiving copies of notes from class and having a scribe type or write an exam or paper verbatim. These accommodations can be provided by Geoff Gajewski, the Assistant Dean of Student Academic Services. Before giving accommodations, he confers with the student and requires a doctor’s report that verifies the condition.