Janet Horvath  

Static Loading, Back and Disc Problems:
Winner of the Independent Book Publishers Gold Medal

Janet Horvath
June 9, 2019

Disc Problems

Static loading can proceed from your muscles to the discs in your spine. Careful avoidance of twisting or turning your back, twisting or tilting your neck, or thrusting your head or chin can literally save your spine. In their book The Athletic Musician, physical therapist Barbara Paull and violinist Christine Harrison explain how damage may occur:

When we bend our necks to look down, or bend down, or bend over, the front of the spinal bones move closer together to curve the neck or back forward. The discs between the bones are squeezed at the front and they behave just like jelly donuts. The jelly-like center oozes through the disc, away from the squeeze and pushes against the strong, outer disc wall at the opposite side causing a bulge at the back of each disc. When the squeeze is removed the bulge slowly subsides and the jelly returns to the center. There is room for small normal disc bulges. Whenever musicians hold their heads tilted to one side for a period of time, their neck discs will bulge on the opposite side… What goes wrong? The fault lies in our lifestyle and unnatural stresses we place on our spine and discs, causing the outer fibrous rings of some discs to crack and fissure too soon in life. The first cracks in the outer fibrous layers can occur quite early in life if the spine is subjected to direct trauma or very physical work, including bending to lift weights, or if the spine is held in an awkward position for long periods of time. These cracks occur in the part of the disc that is bulged most often or most vigorously.

Sustained or frequently repeated twisting movements serve to hasten the formation of cracks in the fibrous outer layer of the discs involved, probably by weakening and separating the angled fibers. The squeezing that occurs during spinal bending movements and maintained bending positions, causes the discs to bulge much further than they should. The space behind the disc is not sufficient to accommodate this larger bulge and it comes in contact with the spinal cord nerves. If you apply pressure to the spinal nerves they produce pain.

All of this is to say that we as musicians must be extremely careful about our whole spine, starting with our necks. During playing, dangerous positions include poking the head forward, bending the neck forward or sideways, or twisting it for any length of time. The neck needs to be kept in neutral. This is especially challenging for violinists, flutists and bassoonists, who must take extra care to release the neck after any awkward positions.

Since we spend so much of our working life in postures that may give rise to wear and tear over time, avoidance of forward bending is advisable while lifting heavy objects. Many of us have been told to be careful when lifting, but how many of us really are cautious with those many daily forward-bending activities? You can protect your back by tightening your abdominal muscles and bending your knees while lifting and trying to keep your back erect. Be wary of turning, twisting or reaching to lift your instrument cases.

Aggressive forward bending when exercising can be risky too, especially for those whose hamstrings are tight and whose lower backs are already weak or injured. Aggressive forward bends, stretching and certain exercises can aggravate and exacerbate back pain. Disc damage can be caused by repetitious forward-bending movements even when they are small. Budget permitting, seek a physical therapist, licensed personal trainer or certified yoga teacher to guide you.

When you’re under stress or nervous, be aware that lifting your shoulders is a natural tendency. Muscle tension from stress manifests itself in the trapezius muscles, located in the upper back and shoulders. To avoid static loading in this area, keep your shoulders down, in a neutral position and remember to breathe slowly and deeply. Whenever you feel yourself tightening up, try one big shoulder roll by squeezing your shoulder blades together with shoulders down, then lift them high up towards your ears, then roll them forward and down. This can go a long way to releasing tension in this area.

Try to avoid the urge to freeze. As a conductor holds out a final chord you can slowly and gracefully lower your arms without being obtrusive. Keep tension from building up by taking every opportunity during performance to move, to wiggle, to shrug or to pull arms back and to stretch the neck. Fidgeting, moving and stretching is important. Emil Pascarelli suggests the following: “Any posture that is rigidly held for a long time is exhausting, even if you are in perfect alignment. Move around while you work: make tiny adjustments that keep the position dynamic instead of static.” This goes for legs and feet as well. We are trained to sit in an orchestra virtually like statues! Have you heard of the risk for deep vein thrombosis or blood clots during extended airplane, car, or bus trips? This goes for long days and weeks of sitting for rehearsals and concerts, too.

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