Sep 16, 2012

Playing an Instrument is Dangerous [Writing Injuries]

Disclaimer: I'm surrounded by doctors and medical books, but have no official schooling in the subject myself. The medical knowledge discussed below is the result of personal research with the attempt to improve fiction writing, not to cure and/or diagnosis people.

Katie was considered a child prodigy at 7 for the cello. It was always funny as she grew up to look at old pictures of her using the wall to hold the instrument upright so she could play. It wasn't so funny when she realized everything she built her life around, she no longer could use as a foundation.

You would think that making music is relatively safe. There’s no contact, little motion, nothing coming at you. Drama in music stories is normally about not being good enough, about almost missing the contest. But just like with sports , musicians get injured. There's actually an entire medical specialty dedicated to treating musicians with issues that come up as a response to their art.

They usually come down with tendinitis, a strain injury resulting from the over use of a muscle, tendon, or joint (ligaments and tissues). Carpal tunnel syndrome also falls into this category. Practice may make the song perfect, but it’ll ruin your hands. The most common locations for tendinitis in musicians, in rough order, are the hand, arm, shoulder, neck and back.

Similar conditions also plague writers (look out you guys!), housekeepers, ground keepers, and any other job involving a repetitive motion. Yes, even shoveling snow. Your character doesn't have to get injured doing something important/relevant to their goals. Say...a construction worker breaking his leg by missing that last step in the dark.

It’s common for those playing a string instrument to over use their bow arm, resulting in the condition being felt in the shoulder (known commonly as ‘fiddler’s shoulder’). Your character can also feel pain when using the arm, or simply raising and lowering it. Katie could totally milk her boyfriend for attention during painful flares this way. As you can expect, tendinitis is also prominent in the hands.

A lot of musicians play through the pain, not excatly the best idea as it could make it worse. The best treatment is rest, with ice when the pain flares up. Of course, if the pain goes beyond mild and occasional, it’s time to see a doctor. At this point drugs may be used (anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, painkillers) or support apparatuses like a splint or brace in addition to rest. Surgery is always a last result in the real world! There’s the possibility scar tissue may interfere with hand movements and hamper playing.

Let’s not forget jaw problems for musicians! Many string players develop this in connection to anxiety. Wind players do not have this problem, but there is the added concern that dental work (like crowns or false teeth) can effect playing. {On a personal note, maybe that's why my trumpet skills deteriorated. Or it could have just been my lack of practicing.}

Also, hearing loss is not limited to those playing in a rock band. You’re at risk if you sit in front of the brass or percussion section of an orchestra.

A quick, single bout of tendinitis here and there won't be too serious for a character, so it's a nice temporary problem to use as a plot element for many things. Or, if you want to talk about life altering drama, up the seriousness of the injury. We writers are good are raising the stakes, are we not?

So, poor Katie is having her life crash around her due to this, but her sister Marian is also suffering from a flare up from her job as a seamstress. At least they can have a cozy scene together involving jointing suffering.

While research is all well and good, the best teacher is experience. Anyone have stories involving repetitive motion injuries or tendinitis they'd like to share?


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