5 Ways Musicians Can Avoid Neurological Injury with Dr. Maria Reese

It was recently revealed that Eric Clapton has a limited ability to play guitar due to peripheral neuropathy. Unfortunately, this rock icon is not alone. Joey Jordison quit Slipknot because of transverse myelitis, Dave Mustaine disbanded Megadeth after suffering from radial neuropathy, and Phil Collins stopped drumming due to hand nerve damage. Add Eddie Vedder, Bo Diddley, and numerous classical musicians to the list.

What do these cases have in common? They are all neurological issues.


For musicians, this can be a devastating blow. We engage in the same motions over and over, hours at a time, day after day. We do this under any circumstance, stressful or not, while expected to perform with enough finesse to make it look effortless, making no mistakes. We are athletes. As we see with this list of injuries, our ‘sport’ can wreak havoc on our bodies. So, what can we do to help prevent nerve-related injuries from happening to us? I asked Dr. Maria Reese.

We are athletes. As we see with this list of injuries, our ‘sport’ can wreak havoc on our bodies."

Dr. Reese is an attending physician at The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). Her rockstar resume includes licenses, awards, and memberships in the areas of sports medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation, performing arts medicine, and dance medicine. With this expertise, she treats everything from repetitive motion injuries to degenerative disc disease. RIC is a world-leading rehab hospital that houses The Medical Program for the Performing Arts, one of the only programs dedicated to the health needs of performing artists. Dr. Reese was kind enough to answer my questions, providing knowledge and advice on how to avoid nerve-related injuries.

What are the most common nerve-related issues you see in musicians?

When we think about nerve-related issues, we consider focal nerve problems (i.e., entrapment or compression of one particular nerve or nerve root) and more global nerve problems (i.e., affecting many nerves, typically the longest nerves in the body).

Of these two main categories, entrapment neuropathies are the most common nerve-related issues we see. Entrapment neuropathies occur when a nerve is compressed, stressed or placed under excess friction at a particular anatomical location. This can lead to pain, numbness, tingling, and possibly weakness. One of the most common types of entrapment neuropathies is carpal tunnel syndrome. This is when the median nerve is compressed at the wrist and can cause pain, numbness, tingling, and/or weakness of the thumb, index, and middle fingers.


What are 5 things that musicians can do to prevent nerve-related injuries?

1. Get regular medical check ups with a primary care physician. Conditions such as diabetes and thyroid disorders are among the most common risk factors for several types of nerve disorders. Ensuring regular check ups and optimizing one’s general health can minimize the risk of developing or exacerbating nerve-related injuries.

2. Maintain a balanced diet. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies (such as Vitamin B12 and Folate) are known risk factors for nerve-related injuries.

3. Avoid or minimize alcohol. Long-term heavy alcohol use can cause direct damage to nerves. Additionally, nutritional deficiencies that can be seen with chronic alcohol use can also lead to nerve injury.

4. Avoid or minimize smoking tobacco. Smoking constricts the blood vessels that supply nutrients to nerves. Smoking can lead to nerve injury as well as exacerbate the symptoms associated with nerve damage.

5. Be cognizant of your body mechanics and change your posture and position often. Maintaining optimal body mechanics and posture to reduce compression or stretching on the nerves helps minimize risk for nerve damage.


Are there any early signs or commonly ignored signs of an issue? At what point should a person see a doctor?

Individuals may see these symptoms as a reason to play more, or harder, or to completely stop playing – none of which is the ideal treatment."

Early symptoms of a possible nerve-related issue include pain, weakness, numbness, tingling, decreased ease of playing and/or decreased dexterity. Within the first few days to a week of noting these symptoms is the best time to see a physician. Far too often, individuals may see these symptoms as a reason to play more, or harder, or to completely stop playing – none of which is the ideal treatment. It is important to know that timely treatment can prevent permanent nerve damage.

Are there any tips for musicians to maintain optimal neurological health?

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, exercise, weight management, limiting or avoiding toxins (including tobacco and alcohol), and regular primary care physician check ups can reduce the risk for and progression of nerve-related injuries and issues.

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