The threat of guitar related Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) should scare any guitarist. In fact, many musicians suffer from symptoms related to the cumulative stresses brought on by their devotion to their music and their guitars. Unfortunately, many don’t realize the potential consequences. While largely treatable and avoidable, RSI can lead to actual disability. Constant pain, limited mobility and even focal dystonia are among the consequences.
For those unfamiliar with focal dystonia, this is possibly the worst case scenario for a musician. This article by Henrike Blumenfeld describes this terrible condition:
Focal dystonia of the hand is a condition characterized by a loss in motor control of one or more fingers. A single muscle or group of muscles is involved: muscles in the hand and forearm tense and tighten, with the result of making the hand (or part of it) curl. Musicians who have intensively practiced their instruments over a number of years are a group most affected by this condition.
Pause for a moment and imagine being stripped of the ability to make music…
Fortunately, RSI doesn’t have to end up as a worst case scenario. And, while information on RSI is still growing, there are some notable steps the guitar player can take to deal with or even avoid RSI. Consider the following:
1. Keep moving! – A recent Canadian study shows that physical activity is very important. The body hates to be static for prolonged periods of time. Movement is essential for maintaining circulation, flushing away metabolic wastes away from tissues and preventing muscles from growing tense.
2. Keep it in neutral – The human body is most efficient when it is in a “neutral” position. While sitting this means a straight back, head balanced over the spine, arms close to the body, feet flat on the ground. Think about all the ways a poorly designed guitar forces you out of this position. Many guitars put us in a hunched position that throw the muscles of the neck and back out of alignment. Acoustic guitars tend to force our picking hand elbows out and away from the body which lends itself to stress on the shoulder joint. The result is unnecessary stress and tension.
3. Ice it – Inflammation is one of the body’s reaction to RSI and icing 20-30 minutes will reduce inflammation and reduce potential damage. It’s a good idea to do this after any prolonged effort. I particularly like using the Elasto-Gel Wrist Wrap for this purpose.
Note – If you have circulatory problems, icing may be contraindicated.
4. Learn about RSI – RSI comes in many forms. Everyone has heard of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) which unfortunately has become the catch all for these types of injuries. In fact, it is just one of a number of syndromes that fall into this category. If you’re looking for a good place to start, I can think of no better resource than It’s Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This book is invaluable. Written in layman’s terms, it takes the reader through the basic anatomy of these conditions, covers predisposing factors, provides invaluable resources for additional research and contains a wide array of exercises and stretches that specifically target the muscles, tendons and nerves impacted by RSI.
5. Stretch – From the Body Mind Resources, site, these yoga-like stretches are a wonderful way of developing and maintaining general flexibility and reducing stress and tension in the body.
6. Rest – Once stricken, there is no substitute for rest. The body needs time to recuperate and heal and the only way to do it is to refrain from the activities that caused the issue. This also means getting enough sleep since this is when much of the body’s healing actually takes place.
7. Review contributing activities – Remember RSI is a cumulative stress injury. The likelihood is that you engage in a number of activities that contribute to the problem. Here are a handful of activities to consider:
- I spend many hours in front of a computer.
- I’m a rock star on Guitar Hero.
- I love texting people on my Blackberry.
- I spend hours on video games.
- I spend a great deal of time behind the wheel of a car.
- I work almost exclusively on a laptop computer.
- I love gardening.
- I do a lot of sewing.
- I hold a child for long periods at a time.
8. Use an ergonomic guitar – Surprised? You shouldn’t be. While knowledge of ergonomics and RSI is important, there is no substitute for using the right tools – in our case ergonomic guitars. In Ergonomics is all about equipment, the author points to a study indicating that the best possible results in addressing ergonomic issues come from using the right tools. While knowledge may be power, it’s of little value when you are under pressure to perform a task and forced to work with tools that only serve to injure you. The right tools make it possible to apply ergonomic principles while allowing you to focus on your task.
For guitar players, this means taking a serious look at how our guitars contribute to our problems. Guitars that balance poorly, are excessively heavy, and place us in awkward non-neutral positions only make things worse. It may be that an ergonomic guitar strap is sufficient. Maybe neck-up devices that help place conventional guitars in more ergonomic positions would benefit you. Or, maybe the answer is a radical break from convention and serious consideration of ergonomic electric guitar and acoustic guitar designs. Ultimately, the goal is to allow our bodies to operate in an efficient (and thus less injurious) manner while keeping our focus on playing the guitar.
Realize that RSI is not a new condition. In a time before modern conveniences, wash women developed what was then called “wash woman’s thumb”. Now, it’s identified as Dequervain’s Tenosynovitis. The problem we face today is that we are at greater risk of RSI than at any other time in history. The advent of computers, PDA’s and video games and the increased sedentary nature of our culture exposes us like never before. If you doubt this or think that you’re safe because you’re young, consider that even children now suffer from RSI.
The bottom line is that RSI is a serious condition that requires serious attention. While far from exhaustive and certainly no substitute for professional advice, these steps illustrates that you can take an active role in prevention and your own healing process. Stop suffering for your art…