Dealing with injury is never fun. Many musicians are constantly sensitive to activities that might injure their bodies and impair their ability to perform. Recently I began to experience minor pains in my chest and shoulder. What I thought was just a passing ache resulted in a visit to the emergency room last week with severe chest pains. Thankfully, the pain was the result of an injury to the left side of my neck. Everything will be fine in time; I just have to allow my body time to heal. In the past week, I've learned a lot about dealing with injuries and thought I would pass some of my experiences on to you. Hopefully it will help you should you ever find yourself in a similar situation.
Pain is not natural! I hate hearing musicians convince themselves that the maxim "No pain, no gain" applies to our field. Muscles in the hands, arms, and shoulders should not hurt while playing. While we constantly experience various levels of tension (that we also need to address), pain is the body's signal that something is wrong. Do not ignore pain! If the activity hurts, stop what you are doing. If the pain persists or is severe, consult a doctor.
Evaluate the source of the pain. Once we can identify the movements that are triggering the pain, we have valuable information to share with a physician or musical coach. When I finally stopped and thought about my situation, I realized that my pain was worst after carrying a book bag on my left shoulder. At the keyboard, I experienced the greatest discomfort when playing jumping bass lines (think of ragtime figures). Using a rolling book bag and simplifying those bass figures for the moment allowed my body to heal.
Regularly rest! I push myself constantly and often neglect getting adequate rest. I'm not just talking about sleep either; our muscles need relief while we are awake as well. Permit yourself to enjoy an afternoon lounging on the couch. Take a walk in the woods and enjoy the sights and sounds around you. Curl up in front of the fire with a good book.
While resting your body, remember to care for your spiritual man as well. Whatever your personal faith, take time to find comfort, rest, and peace as your spirit man connects with the One who is greater than yourself. For me, I have found great comfort in reading Scripture and meditation.
Use ice or heat. I'm not an expert on medical treatments; consult your doctor for what will be best for your specific injury. My personal pain radiated from a strained muscle in my neck that was pulling on other muscles in my shoulder and chest. The best therapy for me turned out to be soaking in a warm tub of water. Not only does the warm water reduce tension in my shoulder, it also soothes my mind and slows my general pace -- leading to rest.
Medications can be helpful. I hate taking drugs, but they are sometimes necessary. I am currently taking anti-inflammatory medication as well as muscle relaxers and pain relievers. The medication allows me to rest and aids the healing process; some of them inhibit my ability to perform (as well as driving). An open conversation with the prescribing physician will lead to a drug regiment that will permit you to do what is necessary and get the maximum benefit from your meds.
Take care of yourself above all else. Musicians often find themselves working in ensembles. Each individual is important to the group's success. It can be a tricky situation when you need to tell other musicians that you are resting in order to allow your body to heal. While no one likes to hear such news from a collaborative partner, we all know that it is necessary from time to time. Only you know what you can do in that moment. Perhaps you need to "mark" certain passages during a rehearsal. If you're not playing at all, consider attending the rehearsal anyway if possible. Making notes in your score and discussing ideas with your ensemble can also be productive parts of the rehearsal process. What is NOT productive is playing in spite of the pain and doing additional damage to your body.
I certainly don't have all of the answers. I'm learning some of these things as I go through my current issues. My neck is getting better daily. With discipline, rest, and following the doctor's instructions, I expect to be back to my old self in a few weeks.
What have you found to be most important as you survive injuries that effect your playing? I welcome your advice and stories in the comment section below.