As many of you know, I hurt my arms this past spring by simultaneously cramming for the first performance with my new band (three days after joining it), preparing for my students’ Coffee Shop Jam (which happened two weeks later), and, in a fit of vanity, trying to do as many push-ups as I could at the gym. Writing that last bit hurts almost as much as my arms did.
I’m happy to say I’m almost all better. For those of you who are interested, here’s the story.
I first got symptoms in early May, during a rehearsal of Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover,” in preparation for the Spring Coffee Shop Jam (YouTube video here). I’d been practicing it like mad, and I remember my shoulders being tied in knots. I went for a bend during the solo, and felt a disconcerting twanging sensation in my left forearm.
By the time the Jam rolled around, my arm and shoulder were feeling pretty tight and sore. Normally I would have rested, but there was no way I was going to sit out of the Jam–I had a dozen students counting on me to back them up.
I limped my way through the show. A week later I went hiking, and the pressure of the daypack on my shoulders caused numbness and tingling in my left hand, and sharp pain up and down my arm. My right arm started hurting too.
I spent the hike totally horrified. My mind raced as it pursued one catastrophic scenario after another: I’d have to stop playing guitar. My rock climbing days were over. I had to wake up from my dream job and go work for Microsoft, using voice recognition software. My arms would shrivel to twigs and I’d be shunned by women for the rest of my days….
When I got home, I canceled most of my lessons and Googled hospitals until I found the Clinic for Performing Artists at Virginia Mason Hospital here in Seattle. Two miserable weeks later, I had my first appointment with Hans Van Buuren, PT, DPT, OCS, who’s responsible for bringing me back to health.
I had all these fears that I’d pinched a nerve or slipped a disk in my neck, but Hans’ diagnosis was quite simple: I’d increased my arm activity too quickly. That, combined with poor posture and too much muscle tension, had overloaded my body. I can’t remember the diagnostic term he used in my chart, but when I looked it up later, I discovered it meant “hurt arms.” I was disappointed–surely this catastrophe had a long, impressive-sounding Latin name worthy of the pain I was in.
As it turned out, Hans was right–it was just sore arms caused by overuse and too much muscle tension. Over the next five months, we used a biofeedback machine which registered muscle activity in my shoulders and back. He’d have me do simple exercises with an elastic band, with the goal of relaxing my trapezius muscles (on the tops of the shoulders) while using the small muscles between the shoulder blades. This, he said, was how I should be using my body when I played guitar: Shoulders down and back, and very relaxed, with just the lightest bit of tension in those muscles between the shoulder blades to keep them stable.
Take note, guitarists! We tend to tense our shoulders when we’re playing something difficult, but it’s bad for our bodies, and doesn’t help our playing. You can change this habit by catching yourself tensing up, and then reminding yourself to relax. Keep nagging yourself as you play until relaxing becomes second-nature.
It took several months to learn how to do this, and I didn’t see much progress for a long while. But finally, about four months into my treatment, I suddenly found myself being able to sleep on my side, sit at the computer, and play guitar for short periods without pain. What a relief.