Ailing musicians

Musicians experience a range of maladies, including carpal tunnel syndrome, musculoskeletal complaints and allergic reactions

In 1974 the ‘BMJ’ published a brief report of a delicate medical complaint afflicting regular players of the cello, dubbed cello scrotum. Sadly, it was a spoof. Baroness Murphy (Dr Elaine Murphy) owned up in 2009 when other papers started referencing the original study.

While cello scrotum may be fiction, there are many real conditions affecting musicians. Not surprisingly, hearing damage is an occupational hazard not just to those in rock bands but also classical performers situated close to loud instruments such as trombones. Hearing issues affect drummers in particular, mainly caused by the cymbals damaging higher frequency hearing. (Piccolo players also have similar problems.)

Drummers have also been known to suffer collapsed lungs when using bass drums with double pedals for excessive lengths of time, owing to sympathetic frequencies being created.

The repeated movements many players have to make leave them at risk of developing repetitive strain injury (RSI). Guitarists and pianists, for example, are prone to carpal tunnel syndrome, in which bones in the wrist begin to press on nerves as they pass through a channel (the carpal tunnel). Numbness, pins and needles, and pain can all ensue. Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist, plays with a splint on his right wrist because of RSI.

The unusual posture needed to play many instruments can predispose musicians to a variety of musculoskeletal complaints, leading to back pain or other local discomforts. Another common problem is spontaneous muscle contraction (focal dystonia), particularly in the fingers.

Allergic reactions or other skin disorders may arise where skin comes into contact with an instrument. These lead to instrument-specific conditions, such as ‘fiddler’s neck’ and ‘flautist’s chin’. These occupational hazards can even include the decay – and death – of bodily tissue: Jean-Baptiste Lully contracted gangrene when his conducting stick penetrated his foot. He refused amputation and later died from the condition.

Brass players are at risk of abnormalities affecting their ‘embouchure’ (the complex arrangement of lips and other tissues at instruments’ mouthpieces). Legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong suffered particularly badly because of his forceful playing style. The condition is known as ‘Satchmo syndrome’ in his honour.

Sometimes instrument playing can reveal underlying health problems. A 17-year-old trumpet player suffered transient ischaemic episodes (‘mini-strokes’) when playing, later found to be caused by a hole in his heart. Surgery corrected the heart defect and cured his symptoms.

Female musicians tend to be affected by conditions slightly more often then men, and string players more often than percussionists. Rest is the most common therapy and generally resolves musculoskeletal complaints. Involuntary muscle contractions are very difficult to treat and can end musical careers.

Like all performers, musicians can suffer performance anxiety when playing in public. At its worst, extreme stage fright can potentially end professional careers. Barbra Streisand did not perform in public for nearly 30 years because of stage fright, which may also have affected the brilliant but eccentric classical pianist Glenn Gould. XTC stopped touring in 1982 because of Andy Partridge’s stage fright. Fortunately, a variety of psychotherapies are available for people with ‘performance anxiety’.

Rock and pop

In popular music, touring can be hazardous to health. Falling from the stage has injured several performers, including Ryan Adams and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Stage diving or crowd surfing is a dangerous pastime (Jamie Reynolds of Klaxons broke his leg doing it in 2007, while Mike Skinner of The Streets aggravated an old hernia in Cambridge in January 2009). Some performers run the risk of being pelted with objects such as bottles (or, in David Bowie’s case, a lollipop).

More seriously, the ‘rock and roll’ lifestyle has claimed numerous lives, particularly through drug overdoses or the long-term effects of overindulgence. A recent study of more than 1,000 rock and pop stars found that even after their period of fame, they were at a substantially higher risk of dying than matched controls.

Perhaps the most unusual case, though, is the fate of country singer Johnny Cash. In 1983 he was kicked in the stomach by an ostrich. Unfortunately, a severe abdominal injury led to a dependence on painkillers and a descent into addiction.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

History, Health, infection and disease
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development