Dealing with Pain as a Musician

Twenty-five percent of music students have reported experiencing a playing-related injury, according to Christine Guptill in the Music Educators Journal. I have my suspicions that that number might actually be higher. Regardless, it’s clear that a large chunk of music students have dealt or will deal with playing-related pain at some point in their careers. For some, it’s temporary, and for others, it becomes chronic. Personally, I experience tendonitis in both my wrists and some occasional jaw tension. In this post, I’ll be using my personal journey as a reference for what I’ve learned about pain prevention and management.

I first felt pain in my left wrist during my senior year of high school. It was my second year as my band’s drum major, and our conducting style used wrist flicks to dictate the ictus of the beat. In addition to that, I was playing flute and electric bass, holding my flute incorrectly, and frequently drew in my sketchbook. All of these things contributed to my tendonitis diagnosis later that year. Since then, I’ve been struggling with playing-related pain.

I’ll be listing some of my pain management techniques. Several of these also double as prevention methods, if started before there’s any hint of pain.

  1. Stay relaxed. Tension is a partial cause of many wrist injuries. Before practicing, I stretch my wrists with some exercises my physical therapist gave me. These include slowly bending the hand back and forth by holding the fingers, “rolling” the wrist in a circle, and clenching and relaxing my fist. I set a timer during my practice sessions to stop every ten minutes or so and repeat these activities. This ties into the next point.
  2. Take breaks. Frequently. This rests your brain and your body.
  3. Check that the instrument is being held properly. My flute teacher and I discovered that I’d been holding my flute wrong, bending my wrist backwards and adding unnecessary tension to my whole arm. We worked on this by playing in front of a mirror, writing reminders in the music to be mindful of my hand placement, and by purchasing a “finger port” to put on my flute to help with the hand placement. This finger port doesn’t fit on my new flute, but it was incredibly helpful when I was able to use it.
  4. Stop if there’s pain. This seems to be one of the more difficult steps for most musicians, including myself. There’s a toxic mentality that there is no progress without pain, and that one must power through to become better. This isn’t true. Pain means that something is happening that shouldn’t be happening, and will only damage you in the long-run. Some days will be worse than others, and it’s okay to take it easy on those days.

Overall, a lot of pain management comes down to identifying the actions that trigger the pain. For example, I know that I can’t play alto flutes with straight head joints because they strain my wrist, so I only play ones with curved head joints. I know that my jaw tension is caused by keeping my embouchure tight on my saxophone, so I take frequent breaks while playing to stretch my jaw and relax it, and I’ve been discussing ways to mitigate the tension with my teacher.

It’s often best if a doctor is brought into the conversation. They can suggest things like steroid injections and physical therapy. Surgery is also an option in some cases.

Pain does not need to be the end of a musician’s career if managed properly.