Repetitive Stress and Strain Injuries:
Preventive Exercises for the Musician
Gail A. Shafer-Crane, PhD, OTR, CHT
Division of Structural Biology Colleges of Osteopathic and Human Medicine,
Michigan State University, A514D East Fee Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA
Professional and amateur musicians commonly practice and play their
instruments experiencing the physical pain of repetitive stress injury
(RSI). Through improved understanding of the etiology and the acceptance
of numerous lifestyle changes, including the addition of preventive exercises
into the practice routine, the musician may be able to limit the effect of RSI
on his or her life. The musician’s intrinsic motivation to practice and to re-
peat motor patterns to perfection compounds the exposure to repetitive
trauma . Practice and performance postures are often less than optimal
and serve as risk factors for increased RSI. Years, decades, and even centu-
ries of customary practice patterns and schedules preclude the insinuation of
ergonomically designed seating and instruments, safer and more comfort-
able practice methods, and playing positions. Both practice seating and
performance seating are often folding or stackable chairs, or flat wooden
benches. Lifestyle choices further contribute to higher risk for RSI. Lengthy
practice sessions are customary, with short interruptions for fast foods, caf-
feine, or nicotine breaks. The musician may be unwilling to seek medical
help early, because he or she is concerned that the physician will require
the limitation of practice or performance times, or worse, instruct the musi-
cian to stop playing altogether. In addition, there is a social/work ethic
concern about the label of an injured musician [2–5].
On the opposite side of the issue is the knowledge that the most effective
treatment of RSI is prevention. Early detection and immediate intervention,
within days or weeks of onset, may be effective in most cases for the most
complete recovery . Delays in seeking assistance, and delays in the
initiation of appropriate care, contribute to severity of the injury and the
need for long rest/recovery periods, surgery, or lengthy rehabilitation.
Throughout the course of RSI, the musician experiences the loss of practice
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Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am
17 (2006) 827–842
and performance ability, increased pain, and may lose the ability to perform
on the instrument of choice completely .
Discussing repetitive injury in those whose craft involves precise repeti-
tion of motor patterns involves careful consideration, as muscle damage
from repetitive trauma is thought to be dose-related. The longer the
exposure to an injurious activity, the more likely pain and long-term
harm will develop . A phenomenon known as delayed-onset muscle
soreness (DOMS) sometimes complicates the ability to notice the early onset
of injury . DOMS, well known in sports medicine, also applies to RSI of
the musician. Because the onset of muscle pain may be delayed from 2 to 48
hours, the musician may continue playing well beyond the point of injury.
As soreness ensues, the musician will adjust playing posture or technique
to compensate for this pain. Muscles, tendons, and ligaments unaccustomed
to demanding activity are more likely to be injured .
The literature is replete with repetitive stress injury diagnoses. For the
purposes of this article, neurological and muscle diagnoses will be included
in the category repetitive stress injury. Other authors have correlated specific
diagnoses to the postures and techniques associated with playing specific
instruments. These may include repetitive grasping of the strings and neck
of the violin, guitar, and cello, which may increase the risk of median and
ulnar neuropathies (neurological) or lateral epicondylalgia (muscle). Percus-
sionists are more likely to experience muscular inflammations. Postural
requirements, such as supporting the violin with the chin while bowing,
may increase risk for thoracic outlet syndrome and neck pain. DeQuervain’s
tendonitis may be a result of the acute flexion of the thumb for bowing. Bal-
ancing on the bench seat of an organ while playing with both hands and feet
may contribute to the development of low and thoracic back pain [3–5,7,8].
Localized pain, weakness, cramping, and dystonia characterize muscle in-
juries. Tendonitis or tenosynovitis, epicondylitis, and focal dystonia are in
this group. Muscle damage diagnosed as tendinitis is caused by microhe-
morrhages, tears at the tendon periosteal junction, and sprains and strains
of the proximal tendon [2,6,9]. Extreme fatigue contributes to muscle ische-
mia and tendon creep , increasing the risk of muscle damage. Symptoms
generally are localized, and the onset is often traceable to a specific incident.
The etiology of muscle dystonia is understood less well. The pianist is
most at risk for this disability involving extra, unintentional movement of
the fingers and painful cramping during use . Muscle groups, such as
the intrinsic hand muscles and long flexors of the thumb and fingers, con-
tract uncontrollably, resulting in marked flexion of the digits, which is
relieved only by discontinuing the activity and redirecting or resting the
digits. Pianists are also prone to dystonia of the feet, and trombone players
are at risk for dystonia of the facial muscles .
There is controversy regarding whether such neural injuries as carpal tun-
nel syndrome and thoracic outlet syndrome are related to activity. Increased
incidence of these diagnoses has been demonstrated to correlate to specific
activities [8,12,13]. Neural injuries generally are thought of as nerve entrap-
ments [14–17]. The peripheral nerves pass through muscular and connective
tissue compartments as they traverse the distance between the spinal cord
and the distant limbs. The nerves must glide throughout their length to limit
tension on the individual axons. Connective tissue adhesions limit the
excursion of the nerve [18,19]. As adhesions increase, pain may be reported
at points along the nerve. This may radiate proximally or distally.
MacKinnon and colleagues have shown that sensory axons in mixed
nerves are more vulnerable to injury, because they are located in the fascicles
on the periphery of the nerve . Sensory disturbances such as paresthesias,
nocturnal numbness and tingling, and hypersensitivity often are reported
early in the course of these injuries. As the nerve injury progresses, muscle
weakness and atrophy may occur.
Through their course, peripheral nerves travel through sites of common
entrapment, including muscular and connective tissue compartments. The
prolonged awkward postures of playing many instruments may lead to in-
creased muscle tone and, perhaps, risk of peripheral nerve entrapment.
Chronic hypertonicity may result in hypertrophy of these compartmental
muscles, compressing the nerves within this more limited space. Further,
connective tissue adhesions are more likely, as restrictions within the com-
partments limit neural glide and blood supply.
Poor posture and subsequent substitution patterns also contribute to
compartmental pressure on the nerves [20,21]. Thoracic outlet syndrome
is an example of one such injury. Loss of proximal scapular stabilization
may lead to rotator cuff tears. Good balance and postural muscle sequenc-
ing are essential for proximal stability. Loss of normal muscular sequencing
has been implicated in scapular instability [21–25]. Arm pain and weakness
are natural consequences of this proximal instability.
Early accurate diagnosis of a repetitive stress injury is imperative, as is
early intervention. Medical history is the number one method of diagnosis.
It is important to differentiate between muscle inflammation and neural
irritation . Early symptoms in muscle inflammation include localized
pain, fatigue, and soreness that may begin during practice, or from 1 to
48 hours afterward. The onset of symptoms may follow a change in fre-
quency or length of rehearsal, a new instrument, different seating, seasonal
changes that expose the musician to cold drafts, or a slight injury followed
by onset of soreness. Untreated, symptoms may escalate from little effect on
either practice or performance, to shortening the tolerated length of
practice/performance, to constant pain during practice/performance, and
finally to ending practice/performance and affecting activities of daily living
Neural symptoms often have an insidious onset. The irritated nerve
defines the distribution of paresthesias. One cardinal sign of carpal tunnel
syndrome is paresthesias that occurs at night. Median nerve symptoms in-
clude the thumb, index finger, long finger, and radial half of the ring finger.
Ulnar nerve symptoms include the ulnar-half of the ring and small fingers.
Special tests include Phalen’s and Tinel’s sign. Although these may be use-
ful, they are not conclusive. Both examination techniques may have false-
positives and -negatives . The diagnostic gold standard is the nerve
conduction study, which quantifies slowing of the propagation of the neural
action potential. Nerve conduction studies require careful interpretation.
Carpal tunnel syndrome, for example, continues to be a clinical diagnosis.
Combining clinical and electrodiagnositc tests with the medical history is
effective in the accurate diagnosis of peripheral nerve injuries .
The prevalence of RSI in musicians is such that primary treatment for
RSI must be prevention. The most effective treatment is education and
implementation of healthy lifestyle habits. Good nutrition, hydration, and
the avoidance of caffeine, nicotine, and other stimulants are the building
blocks of this treatment program. Awareness of muscle fatigue, onset of
soreness or mild pain during or shortly after practice, and the will to take
frequent rest breaks as soon as these become apparent help prevent RSI
[5,7,8]. Aerobic exercise increases peripheral circulation and blood available
for neural nutrition. Endurance training, with free weights, elastic bands or
tubing, or exercise machines, prepares the musician for long hours of prac-
tice and performance, and helps ensure that the muscles and joints are more
than up to the stresses and strains required. Endurance exercises can be
incorporated into practice sessions. Consistent practice schedules help main-
tain muscle strength and limit painful overuse. Gradually increasing
demands of practice and performance with a new instrument also may limit
the risk of overuse injury.
There are many conditioning programs, such as Pilates, Feldenkrais, and
yoga. Each is worth implementing as the base of the prevention program.
Specific suggestions for exercise prescription will be illustrated . Overall
balance maintains the appropriate postural muscle sequencing and enhances
core body stability. Prepractice and performance warm-ups are essential.
Playing scales or slowly playing simple movements as the practice session
begins allows the fingers to prepare for the challenges of playing [7,8].
Stretching has become somewhat controversial. Current research suggests
only performing vigorous stretching when the muscles are warmed up to
prevent muscle damage from a rebound effect that increases hypertonicity.
The exercises should be performed very gently, and within the pain-free
range of motion. Postures should be entered slowly, and maintained for
30 to 60 seconds. Long practices should be interrupted by frequent sessions
of gently stretching and range-of-motion exercises to improve circulation
and relieve fatigue. Care must be taken to avoid pain, bouncing, or forcing
the muscles to overstretch  (Figs. 1–4).
Movement enhances blood flow through the extremities, relieves fatigue,
and bathes joints in synovial fluid. Microbreaks that include range of mo-
tion of the neck and extremities at regular short intervals are recommended
to help improve comfort, reduce pain, and limit risk of overuse. Gentle
stretching programs may be initiated throughout the day, more frequently
during practice sessions, and before and following performances. These
have some benefit in reducing discomfort and increasing peripheral
Stretches that have been recommended in numerous websites, textbooks,
and journals [7,8,20–23,25,28,29] are simple and gentle. They can be done
between sets, and frequently during practice and rehearsal. Note that stretch-
ing has been show to be potentially harmful if performed too vigorously, and
has not been shown to provide protection from DOMS or RSI .
Fig. 1. Each of these stretches may be performed either standing or sitting. In either position,
the shoulders are to be positioned in line above the pelvis, the chin tucked in as if trying to make
a double chin. One hand is place on the opposite shoulder, and the opposite hand is placed
behind the bent elbow to push, gently, stretching the posterior capsule.
Modifications in the instrument, seating, lighting, and even temperature
regulation, such as avoiding cold drafts, contribute to effective prevention
of overuse injuries. Occupational therapists are trained to assess the individ-
ual and match him/her with available adaptive devices. Additionally, they
may be able to recommend alterations to instruments . Ergonomically
designed seating is available for use while playing specific instruments.
Appropriate seating allows the feet to be firmly planted on the floor with
the ankles, knees, and hips at a 90?angle. The lumbar lordosis should be
supported, and the height of the seat pan requires adjustment that facilitates
playing of the instrument. A firm, upholstered seat pan should have
sufficient depth to position the musician’s back against the back of the chair
and the edge, allowing 1 to 2 in clearance to the back of the knees. The edge
of the seat pan should be rounded, limiting pressure against the thighs or the
back of the knees .
Fig. 2. The arms are flexed to 90?. The wrist of the stretched arm is flexed actively, and then the
opposite hand is placed on the back of the first hand to stretch it gently into further flexion.
Fig. 3. To stretch the forearm extensors, the stretched arm is extended, and the wrist is
extended actively. The opposite hand is placed on the palm perform a gentle stretch to the wrist.
Treatment and preventive exercises
Early intervention by medical care specialists, such as a physician or oc-
cupational or physical therapist, will provide the musician with information
about the disorder, ergonomics, healthy lifestyle changes, and an overall
exercise regime that may be helpful in stopping the progression of the injury.
The initial evaluation takes note of range-of-motion limitations, especially
in joints that are more proximal. Poor balance, as in standing on one leg
for less than 30 seconds with eyes open or 15 seconds with eyes closed
, may indicate a sequencing deficit that creates inhibition patterns in pos-
tural muscles. Regional strength is tested through grip strength and manual
muscle testing. Muscle tone in the neck, upper back, shoulder, and upper
limb should be assessed through palpation and manual muscle testing.
Hypertonicity in the neck and back supports the notion of a sequencing
disorder and suggests the patient may be substituting extremity muscles
for posture stabilization over the proximal trunk muscles.
Treatment should include outpatient intervention and a home program.
The first intervention includes rest and avoidance of painful activity. Splint-
ing, adaptive techniques, or absolute rest may help to accomplish this. Anti-
inflammatory treatments may include heat, ice, massage, counter strain,
trigger point release, electrical stimulation, myofascial release, iontophoresis
with steroids, ultrasound, or laser therapy. Strengthening of the effected
region may follow; however it is essential that the patient be warned to
avoid pain. Muscle damage is already present, and working in pain should
Fig. 4. This is a composite stretch for the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands. Starting
position is with the fingers interlaced, elbows bent, with the hands resting on the lap. Keeping
the fingers interlaced, turn the palms out and extend the elbows. Bring the hands slowly over the
head and hold. Return to the resting position slowly.
be avoided to preclude exacerbation of the injury [7,26,32,33]. Emphasis
upon trunk posture and scapular stabilization is essential throughout the
strengthening phase .
One of the elementary exercises for trunk stability is known as the pelvic
clock . Patients lie supine with the hips and knees bent to about 45?, feet
flat on the surface. They imagine a clock on their abdomen, with the 12
o’clock position toward the head, 6 o’clock toward the feet. Patients then
are directed to rock the pelvis toward the 12 and 6 o’clock positions on
the imagined clock, using only the abdominal muscles. As patients master
this motion, they are instructed to rock the pelvis to point toward each of
the hour positions. Patients then are taught the same exercise standing.
They stand facing a wall with the feet shoulder-width apart, the hands
placed on the wall at shoulder level with the elbows bent slightly (Fig. 5).
Facilitation of the postural muscles and re-establishing normal muscle se-
quencing for balance and proximal trunk stabilization require gross motor
stimulation. Initiation of this treatment is done through balance exercises
on a Swiss ball [34–36]. The patient sits on a ball large enough for him or
her to sit with the hips, knees, and ankles at a 90?angle. The patient uses
abdominal muscles to perform a pelvic clock. As balance is achieved, and
Fig. 5. This illustrates the athletic stance, feet shoulder-width apart, pelvis tucked in a forward
pelvic tilt. The illustration of the clock face provides a reference for positioning. The pelvis is
rocked in the direction of each of the numerals on the clock face with the abdominal muscles.
The instruction to avoid use of the leg muscles for positioning is emphasized.
the patient reports being ready for the next step, the patient is instructed to
bounce, making sure maintain at least slight contact with the ball. Balance
and coordination exercises escalate, first asking the patient to raise the knees
reciprocally every third bounce (hands are on the sides of the ball); then the
hands are raised to shoulder level, also in a reciprocal pattern at the same
rate. These moves are combined with the patient bouncing, and then raising
one knee and the opposite arm reciprocally. Increasing the frequency of the
knee and arm raises makes the exercise more complex (Fig. 6).
Awareness of the position of the scapula during shoulder range-of-mo-
tion exercises may assist the patient in establishing improved patterns of
shoulder stability . The patient may need to be retrained in engaging
latissmus dorsi, levator scapulae, the rhomboids, serratus anterior and pos-
terior, and the rotator cuff muscles in sequence. One exercise that assists
with this retraining is the shoulder clock. The patient is placed in side lying
position with a pillow that supports the head in a neutral position. The
patient keeps the hips perpendicular to the mat throughout the exercise.
Fig. 6. The weight is centered on the ball. The pelvic clock is an introductory exercise that as-
sists with establishing balance and flexibility on the exercise ball. As balance and comfort im-
prove, bouncing, marching in place, and raising the arms reciprocally are introduced one at
a time. These motions are performed in combination as comfort and balance allow. They are
made more difficult by increasing speed, height of the limbs in the reciprocal pattern, and com-
plexity of the arm motions. Clapping in rhythm may be introduced as an additional level of
The therapist supports the scapula with one hand, while directing the
motion of the arm closest to the ceiling with the other. The patient starts
with both hands together, arms flexed at the shoulder to 90?, elbows in
extension (3 o’clock). The patient is directed to stretch the upper arm so
the hand is just past the lower hand. He or she then moves her arm to the
2 o’clock position, and the therapist give feedback regarding the position
and stability of the scapula. As the patient moves past the 12 o’clock
position, he or she will find it necessary to pivot the upper body so the
shoulders are resting on the mat. He or she will pivot back to the original
position to complete the circle (Fig. 7).
Upper quadrant strengthening
Shoulder range of motion against gravity is the first step in progressive
resistive exercises. Isometric shoulder, elbow, and wrist exercises are added,
with emphasis on the musician’s ability to limit fatigue or pain by limiting
effort. Codman exercises are a widely used program for improving shoulder
range of motion. These should be performed early in the strengthening
progression with 1 lb weights. As long as the individual is pain-free, low-
weight free weight exercises are added and advanced slowly.
Fig. 7. The shoulder clock is performed while lying on one side. The head is supported in mid-
line on a pillow. The pelvis is maintained in this position throughout the exercise. The therapist
manually repositions the scapula, facilitating positions of stability. The free arm is rotated
slowly into forward flexion, and the trunk is rotated to allow a full swing of the arm through
a full rotation. At each hour on an imaginary clock face, the therapist provides manual
feedback to encourage scapular stabilization. After several practices with the therapist, the
musician may perform this exercise as part of the exercise regime.
Stress-loading exercises are weight-bearing exercises described as closed
chain or weight-bearing. The musician stands next to the exercise ball, bends
over slightly bending the knees, places the open hands palm down on the
ball about shoulder-width apart. The musician increases the percentage of
body weight borne through the extended arms gradually, paying close
attention to the position of the scapula reviewed in the arm circle exercise.
The exercise is graded by lifting the ball to shoulder height and pushing
against the ball just hard enough to maintain its position on the wall. The
musician traces a small circle with the ball, moving it by walking hand
over hand. As the exercise becomes easier, increase the size of the circle.
Finally, when the circles are performed without pain, and can be continued
for at least 5 minutes, the pattern is changed from a circle to tracing a large
X on the wall. The center of the X is about chest high and at the midline of
the body. The ball is rolled up and down along the legs of the X. As the
exercise advances in difficulty, the musician must take care to avoid excess
fatigue and pain. It may take several weeks to work through each level of
the graded activity (Fig. 8).
Upper limb progressive resistive exercises are introduced when the
inflammatory pain has subsided . Eccentric strengthening is effective,
but if done too aggressively, it increases the risk of inflammation. The
progression of the exercise program is initiated with light resistance and
low weights. One session is comprised of exercises that use resistance bands,
free weights, and exercise putty.
Posture is very important when performing strengthening exercises. The
musician is instructed to stand with feet shoulder-width apart, bend the
Fig. 8. Stress loading is a weight-bearing activity throughout the upper limb. It is introduced
with the Swiss ball on the floor, in front of the musician. The hands are placed on the ball
approximately shoulder-width apart, and the weight of the upper body is borne by the hands
on the ball. Scapular stabilization is emphasized. The exercise is graded by lifting the ball to
shoulder level on a wall, and instructions are given to press the hands into the ball just enough
to hold it to the wall. The hands walk it so it traces a small circle. As comfort and strength
allow, the circle is enlarged, and finally a large X pattern is traced using the same technique
of walking the ball with the hands.
knees slightly, rock the pelvis into the 12 o’clock position, tuck the chin, and
adduct the scapulas with arms at the side, a position sometimes referred to
as an athletic stance.
Exercise bands made of latex or rubber are graded beginning at very light
resistance. There are many brands of these bands, and they are available
through medical supply and athletic stores (Figs. 9–11). Each of the exer-
cises is repeated 10 times. The exercises are advanced weekly by increasing
the repetitions by sets of 10 up to three sets. Then increase the repetitions
to 15. These sessions are performed two to three times a day. Exercises
are initiated at 1 lb, and graded up 1 lb at a time to 3 lbs maximum. Empha-
sis for increasing difficulty is on increasing repetitions.
Exercise putty is one of the products inspired by silly putty. This versatile
therapy media strengthens flexion and extension of the hand muscles. Exer-
cises have been designed to strengthen intrinsic muscles and connective
tissue structures of the joints. Rolling, pulling, making a donut shape and
placing all the digits inside the loop and stretching the fingers and thumb
out as if indicating the number five, pinching, and squeezing are among
the countless ways to exercise. It is important to limit the length of the
exercise. Typically 5-min sessions are assigned, two to three times a day.
It is important to stop this and any other exercise at the point of fatigue.
No one should be directed to use a tennis ball for strengthening.
Fig. 9. Loop the band around the back of the hands. The loop is made so it is just long enough
so the hands are shoulder-width apart with no tension on the loop with the wrists locked in
a neutral position and the elbows at 90?of flexion. The exercise is initiated by spreading the
hands apart, as if demonstrating the size of a fish caught, just far enough to be challenging,
but not so far as to pull the wrists into flexion.
Neural tension is a significant problem in RSI. As adhesions develop
along the length of the peripheral nerve, the nerve is unable to glide through
its full excursion. Evidence is noted when there is a complaint of pain or
paresthesias in composite range of motion of an extremity, but not during
isolated range of motion of a single joint [22,23]. Provocative positions
have been defined to evaluate neural tension signs of each peripheral nerve.
Paresthesias and pain are the primary complaints. It is possible to use the
same positions for treatment. As patients assume the symptomatic position,
they are instructed to move in and out of the position that causes the symp-
tom. This maneuver is termed, nerve gliding. It is particularly important for
the patient to be instructed to avoid pain, extremes of numbness and
tingling, and to be alert for increased paresthesias or pain [7,21,29,38].
There are many articles that support stretching, strengthening, good
nutrition, hydration, rest, and ergonomics along with many other concepts
that may be helpful in preventing repetitive stress injuries. The most
conclusive literature proposes early recognition of onset of symptoms, and
Fig. 10. While seated, chin tucked, loop the band around the ball of the foot; place one elbow
on the knee on the same side, grasping the band firmly in the hand with the wrist locked in a neu-
tral position. Perform bicep curls, keeping the wrist locked in a neutral position throughout the
immediate reduction or cessation of the causal activity. This is not well
accepted by the musician, because this means an interruption of practice
and performance. Just like any worker or athlete at risk for RSI, however,
the musician must learn to recognize early signs and take the steps to limit
damage to muscular and neural tissues. More studies are needed to provide
evidence for effective treatment and prevention of RSI.
The author expresses her appreciation to Stephanie Shafer for her pho-
tography, and Curtis Wood, OTR, CHT, for demonstrating the exercises
presented in this article.
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