Playing the drums is a very physical activity. The sheer forces and repetitive motions that occur with drumming can result in a number of injuries to the upper and lower extremities, and spine. Most that occur due to drumming can be avoided by developing proper technique, practicing proper warm-up and cool-down, keeping our muscles and joints flexible and strong, and maintaining a relatively ergonomic posture. However, other factors can affect our health, particularly those associated with vibration.
Continuous exposure to vibration has been shown to cause a variety of health problems such as back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and vascular disorders. Vibration exposure can be divided into whole-body vibration or hand and arm vibration. Both can result from various sources, affect different areas of the body, and produce a number of symptoms.
While injury due to hand and arm vibration was originally discovered in workers that used power hand tools such as jackhammers, I’ve noticed a greater frequency in my medical practice of drummers displaying similar symptoms. This is a direct result of the continuous repetitive motion of the hand and wrist involved in drumming, in addition to the constant vibration that is transferred from the stick to the hand. Whole-body vibration occurs when vibration is transmitted to the entire body through the seat, from the feet, or a combination of the two. This potentially can occur when musicians stand on vibrating floors or sit on a vibrating seat.
Drummers particularly are at risk since they can be exposed to vibration through multiple body parts over extended periods. Symptoms can include back pain, diminished sensation and dexterity in the hands or feet, decreased grip strength, vascular injury resulting in finger blanching or “white fingers,” tendonitis, or a variety of nerve entrapment neuropathies such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Whole-body vibration levels can often be reduced by using vibration isolation or by using shock-absorbing systems between the drummer and the vibrating source, such as a cushioned drum throne.
Hand and arm vibration is more difficult to control. The level of vibration depends on numerous properties including size and weight of the stick, hand grip, handle location on the stick, and drumhead tension or cymbal density. The best way to prevent excessive vibration and shock is through better ergonomic stick design, by cushioning the hands by wearing gloves, or by wrapping sticks with a vibration-absorbing material. Drum sticks have also evolved over the last few years as manufacturers experiment with different stick shapes and materials, as well as dipped or coated sticks for better grip. A number of stick manufacturers have now introduced anti-vibration sticks, which they claim will reduce vibration to the hands.
Next month’s article will take a closer look at these anti-vibration sticks and the data that supports their efficacy, as well as how we can recognize the effects of vibration exposure and prevent further injury due to vibration.