Have you got Widdle Finger’ or ‘Roadie’s Arm’? Fear not, as we give an Instant diagnosis of typical medical complaints from modern musicians.
When The Searchers sang about ‘Needles and Pins’ in 1964 little did they know these would be among the most common early symptoms of a worrying affliction of the cyberage.
Repetitive Strain Injury is a catch-all phrase that takes in a variety of complaints, with tendonitis (inflammation of the fibrous tissue that connects muscle to bone in the arms and fingers) the most common type.
While hardly a new phenomenon, the rise of computers and the use of computer keyboards in the workplace has seen a mushrooming of cases in the last decade.
And the modern obsession with PlayStations has created a new generation wary of ‘Nintendonitis’. Piano players have long been aware of the pitfalls of over-practising but the rise in guitarists with such arm and finger conditions dates from the 80s when a dexterously demanding approach to guitar playing sent any self-respecting picker in search of widdledom. Blame Steve Vai for his 10-hour routines and Alan Holdsworth for those finger-twisting uncommon chords’ spanning seven frets (not to mention Yngwie, Van Halen and Rhoads).
In most cases, guitar Repetitive Strain Injury is down to indiscriminate repetition, whether endless single-string shredding or even seemingly innocuous, funky 16th-note strumming.
“The difficulty with recognizing and treating Repetitive Strain Injury starts with the wide variety of symptoms,” says Dr Paul MacLoughlin, author of the bible on Repetitive Strain Injury and upper limb disorders. “These range from numbness and mild loss of flexibility in the fingers, on to swelling, redness and burning sensations in the forearm, and through to elbows and frozen shoulders that may even refer pain to the back and neck”.
MacLoughlin explains that depending on the signs, a variety of subtly different conditions may be responsible for your discomfort. He singles out three for guitarists to be especially aware of: tenosynovitis (finger and/or forearm discomfort due to inflammation of the lining of the sheath that guides and lubricates the tendons); carpal tunnel syndrome (pain in the hand due to pressure on the median nerve, potentially from ‘over angling’ the wrist); and epicondilytis (elbow and forearm pain, equivalent to tennis or golfers’ elbow but equally a real threat to musicians lifting heavy amplifiers awkwardly – ‘Roadie’s Arm’, anyone?).
Treatment for all these conditions invariably involves rest, though may it be supplemented with anti-inflammatory drugs, physio and chiropractor therapy, and deep tissue massage. In extreme cases, plaster casts and even surgery to cut out sections of trashed tendon may be required. For the vast majority of guitarists there’s no need to worry, and none of the above is to be confused with far less sinister stiffness and mild cramp that can be expected from exercising and building up muscles as with any ‘normal’ physical workout. Ultimately,
moderation and a rule to never play through pain are the watchwords. For those intent on a punishing playing regime, discipline yourself: warm up with gentle, methodical finger and arm stretches to maximise circulation; take plenty of regular rest; vary the type of playing exercises in your workout and strive for efficient technique that minimises left-hand fretting pressure.