Some aspects of pain are a natural byproduct of learning an instrument and are to be expected. For stringed instrument players building calluses on the finger tips is an excellent example of this. You practice until you’re uncomfortable, then stop and try again later. Eventually your fingers grow accustomed to the sensation of working the strings and you build sufficient callus on the each finger to no longer have an issue with it. Working unfamiliar muscles can result in lactic acid buildup which brings a different sort of discomfort, but one that most folks who have exercised are familiar with. Stretching is vital to avoid many injuries, but it is also an area that is not addressed very often in the learning process. Most of the time it comes up when an injury is either forming or has already manifested itself.
I have been having some issues with might right elbow that indicate that I probably have a repetitive stress injury that is impacting the ulnar nerve. It seems to be a bass-centric injury in that the worst symptoms arise when I’ve been working with the bass as opposed to the guitar. I’ve concluded that the ergonomics of my guitar playing are different than my bass playing. One of my doctors agrees, and after noting the worsening of the symptoms, she stated that I should take an extended break from bass playing before the symptoms became even worse and started impacting my guitar playing as well. She also advocated finding a good physical therapist to get me started on the road to recovery. While this area is not her primary area of expertise, she is no stranger to RSIs as she has been dealing with her own for several years now.
So this has left me with a definite dilemma, as I am active in three bands as the bassist. All three expect rehearsals and one is a semi regular three set a night band. It was during the most recent gig with that one that I came to the realization that the problem needed to be dealt with in one way or another. We were performing in a local watering hole and about half way through the second set the pain started in my elbow, followed by numbness and prickling running down my forearm. If it had been my left arm I would have worried about my heart, but it was my right and not radiating from the shoulder. By the end of the second set I was in significant pain and my right hand was starting to go numb in the ring finger and little finger. The situation simply worsened through the third set, but I grunted my way through it; not necessarily the best decision health wise, but I made it through the gig.
If this had been a one-time occurrence I would have left it at that, but this has actually been building for some time now. I have been having pain in the elbow there for some time and bouts of prickling and numbness running down my arm in that area that has come and gone. I’d mentioned the prickling in passing to my PCP when I had my annual physical, but she was more concerned with some other things at that point and it was an “oh yeah, almost forgot about it,” comment on my part. Given that my current symptoms are basically classic for some variation of tennis elbow, I’m fairly confident that I know what’s going on and my other doctor was in agreement with my assessment. The treatment options that I have found thus far are pretty simple: rest, icing, and anti-inflammatories. Severe cases might require surgery, which I would like to avoid.
I’ve also been exploring different positioning, moving from a five string to a four in order to change alignment, shifting strap lengths and instrument angles, and paying close attention to how my right arm responds to the changes. I’ve been trying to move my elbow position as soon as I get any pain twinges or start feeling the prickling numbness occurring. I traded my Carvin SB5000 five string for a Carvin Bunny Brunel BB70 four string, hoping that the difference in body shape, weight and less elbow travel to hit the low string would help. I’m also trying to consciously play as lightly as I can with my right hand; trying to avoid digging in and working the muscles any harder than necessary. Thus far the difference hasn’t provided any significant relief and I’m looking at another three set bass gig looming on the not so distant horizon. The pain is under control, but the numbness and prickling are very much affected by how long I’m on the instrument at any given time.
So, I’ve started making my band members aware of my situation and have let them know that it is in all likelihood going to result in my having to take an extended break from performing on the bass. I really don’t want this to get worse, particularly since I still can play guitar symptom free for the most part. Thus I’m left with some pretty limited options. We’ll see how it goes.