Health Problems of Musicians
Module created July 2020
The physical and mental health problems associated with musicians (both amateur and professional) are many and varied, and constitute an overlooked and ‘Cinderella’ branch of medicine. It has been estimated that 82% of musicians have a medical problem related to their playing, and that 76% of them have a condition that is severe enough to affect their performance. A study showed that 64-76% of orchestral musicians have significant Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSIs)1.
This area of concern bears many similarities to sports medicine but receives far less attention, although the conditions that affect musicians have the potential to lead to devastating consequences, and indeed can destroy hard-won careers. Musicians with medical problems often say that when they seek help for conditions affecting their performance they are frustrated to find that they can have difficulties in getting some practitioners to understand and to take their concerns seriously. For example, an ulnar nerve problem in a professional guitarist or hand arthritis in a pianist may deliver a fatal blow to their career.
Even amateur musicians have spent many hours learning to play their instruments, and music is an integral part of their lives. In the case of professional musicians, many have gone into music as they have such a passion for their craft that they simply cannot imagine doing anything else. It is very hard to start a career as a musician, and the training is time-consuming and expensive with there being intense competition for the opportunities that open up a career.
The music world is a difficult and very competitive place in which to make a living, and artists, often reluctant to admit to health problems as they feel this may stop them from getting work, can tend to ‘push on’ when ill to the detriment of their health. Professional orchestral musicians talk of medical conditions such as musculoskeletal problems and stage fright as being ‘unmentionable’, and say that they would be ‘crazy to advertise disabilities’ as there is already an oversupply of healthy performers.
Music has always been a precarious way to make a living, but performers have been facing unprecedented problems recently in the wake of Covid 19, with many having had all work cancelled for the foreseeable future and many musicians working on a self-employed basis.
An increasing number of performing arts clinics have appeared over the last few years to start to address this hitherto neglected area of medicine. This module has been written to highlight the medical problems associated with musicians, and to bring attention to the available resources for primary care practitioners involved in treating them.
This module was written by Dr Sara Lambert, GP and GP Appraiser.