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Why is it that musicians suffer an extraordinary amount of physical discomfort?

The Edinburgh Physiotherapy Centre

There are several elements peculiar to playing an instrument which makes musicians particularly prone to physical problems.

Sound familiar?

Consequently, muscle imbalances develop over time, which can lead to pain and discomfort. Here's why:

So what is muscle imbalance?

Muscles work together in groups to perform all movements. Some muscles have more of a stability or control role (such as the back and shoulder muscles), while other muscles have more of a mobility or power role (such as the forearm and fingers). These muscles must co-ordinate together appropriately to integrate precision into a movement. Bad habits and sustained positions change the way the stability (or control muscles), and the mobility (or power) muscles work together. Often, in the musician, the muscles which hold our posture firm, suffer, and the strain is shunted down into the arm, which works harder to compensate.

Imbalances in the musician can develop over time and are usually a result of overuse of the arm muscles and under-use of postural muscles.

By correcting these muscle imbalances you can optimise the potential and efficiency of your body, and have a significant effect on pain reduction.

The body uses muscles with which it is familiar. Just as a familiar piece of music may be remembered by listening to a bar of the piece, the body uses memorised movement patterns, which often involve either inappropriate muscles or the right muscles in inappropriate sequences. By changing the dominance of muscles in the body and re-balancing movements, not only will you be less susceptible to discomfort, but your endurance and technique will benefit.

Consequences of correcting muscle imbalance:

Why does it occur?

Mobility or power muscles have 'workaholic' tendencies, and will often 'take over' from the stability muscles. The stability muscles have a tendency to go on holiday, and this combination of muscle characteristics can mean that the muscles do not control the joints at the right time.. To restore the balance of the stability and mobility muscles, we need to get the stability muscles working again, they need gentle persuasion.

The brain learns to use the muscles it knows best, so if your dominant muscles are better known by your brain, they will work harder and create more and more of an imbalance, unless you bring the others back from holiday to counter-balance the situation. Strength training exercises do not fix imbalances! They just make the imbalance stronger and harder to break.

Ideal body control

The stability muscles are vital for controlling the trunk and pelvis, to provide posture control, balance and smooth co-ordination. They provide a stable base to enable the mobilising muscles to provide rapid movement, without strain.

With imbalance, the efficiency of the muscle system is compromised and technique becomes less accurate and co-ordinated, IN SPITE of our strength and flexibility. In these scenarios it takes more energy and effort in practice. The natural tendency of the body, is to do what is familiar and resort to the dominant and often stressed muscles.

With imbalance, muscles will be activated in the wrong order or at the wrong time, such that the most familiar (usually short or workaholic muscles) will be over used in preference to those less familiar but more important stability muscles.

Depending on your instrument, musicians suffer different imbalances, but remember, it is still very important to keep loose.

We at the Edinburgh Physiotherapy Centre are specialists in the treatment of muscle imbalances.

If you would like to visit us, please give us a ring on 0131 556 1116

Advice on health problems can also be obtained by calling the Arts Medical Helpline (0845 602 0235)

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Contributions | Home | Musicians' Health | Anatomy/Biomechanics | Piano Teaching | Richard Beauchamp