Bad Habits Begone: How to Avoid Injuries as a Musician

Connor McCoy, Spire Contributor | January 30, 2019

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''Being a musician can be an accident,'' Mr. Goebel said in quaintly accented English, impatiently steering the conversation back toward music. What he seemed to mean was, ''Being a musician is an accident waiting to happen.'' —The New York Times, 1996

Let’s face it, most of us don’t regard a career in music as particularly “dangerous.” But like many other skills and hobbies, singing or playing an instrument can take a toll on your physical well-being. In this article, I’ll be doing my personal best to better prepare your body for a life and career in music by describing common ailments that affect instrumentalists and vocalists around the world, and what to do to prevent them from knocking at your door sometime down the road.

Common injuries for instrumentalists

Depending on the instrument, musicians are at risk for many types of instrument-based injuries. Different types of injuries can display themselves if proper technique hasn’t developed, or the musician simply wears their body out practicing or performing too much (called overuse injuries).

Some common injuries that string instrumentalists and drummers have previously grappled with include:

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome - Tingling sensation or numbness in fingers

Cubital Tunnel Syndrome - Pain in the upper extremity (arm, elbow, and hand)

Tendinitis - tendon inflammation from overuse or wrong posture

Bursitis - Inflammation or irritation of tendons, muscles or skin

Quervain's Tenosynovitis - pain on the inside of the wrist and forearm

Most of these conditions are caused by overuse, repetitive strain, not warming up properly, wrong posture, or wrong positioning of the body, arms, legs, hands, fingers. Usually, it’s a combination of all or some that quickly lead to dull or sharp pain when playing your instrument. It’s not uncommon for other activities, such as using a laptop or a computer, to increase the chances of getting repetitive motion injuries when combined with practicing your instrument.

The easiest way to let yourself succumb to one of these injuries is by failing to shape good habits when you first start playing an instrument. By following professionals’ advice and forming good habits early on when learning an instrument, you can train your brain to play your instrument correctly and protect your muscles and joints from chronic illnesses.

If you are one of the many (like myself), who never had the chance (or skipped the opportunity) to learn your instrument professionally or take classical lessons, then I highly recommend you evaluate the way you play your instrument. Start at square one: what is the proper technique is for playing your instrument?

By forcing yourself to warm up before performing, take plenty of breaks, stretch, and maintain good posture, fingering, and technique while practicing, you can actively extend the life expectancy of your music career.

Learn how to prevent injuries while playing the piano.

Learn how to prevent injuries while playing the guitar.

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Common injuries for vocalists

Damage to the voice while singing is even more common than instrumental-related injuries. We often hear about famous singers such as Adele canceling parts of their tour because of difficulties or problems with their vocal cords, 

Unfortunately, there are just too many things that can negatively impact the voice. Your lifestyle and your diet can have a massive impact on your vocal health. And depending on the type of music you’re singing, you can cause irreparable damage to your vocal cords.

Some of the common conditions that can befall vocalists include:

Vocal cord nodules - Small, hard, callus-like growths caused by vocal abuse.

Vocal cord polyps - Small, soft growths that usually appear alone on a vocal cord.

Contact ulcers - These occur in people who use great force when beginning to speak

Laryngitis - Swelling of the vocal cords caused by inflammation or infection. Swollen vocal cords vibrate differently than usual, changing the typical sound of your voice.

If you’re in a rock band, you might be gigging 2-3 shows a week that likely involve late nights and alcohol, which can compound the damage and increase the likelihood of vocal strain or harmful illnesses like vocal nodes popping up. This article goes more in depth on the details of many of these illnesses.

Smoking, for example, can seriously impact vocal health. What we inhale and filter through our lungs can have lasting effects, and by actively following a more natural and healthier lifestyle when it comes to what we eat, drink, and smoke, we can keep the larynx and the lungs prepped for what we hope to be a lifetime of singing.

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Listening, prevention, and protection

One of the best ways you can prevent these types of injuries is to listen to your body. A lot of musicians ignore the early signs of pain when practicing or performing, and let these problems fester and grow instead of seeking professional or medical help when it’s the most treatable. It’s a matter of taking the time to reflect on your own bad habits and making sure you give your posture and technique the attention it deserves when looking at the longevity of your music career.

Too many musicians are vulnerable to these illnesses early on in their career, impacting how they perform later in life. They might have to spend months or years recovering before they’re able to play again if they’re able to play at all.

Do yourself a huge favor, it’s never too late: protect your body against these injuries, exchange bad habits for good ones, practice and research good techniques for your instrument, and don’t overexert yourself when it comes to music—your future self will thank you.

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