I have had my share of injury in the last 25 years. In fact, I only got over chronic back pain as recently as last year. My story is one of being young and uneducated in proper lifting technique in my pre-professional-singer-life as a chemical technician in a pharmaceutical company. We dealt with a lot of heavy equipment and there was no training on how to lift, push or otherwise move huge full 50 L carboys up to 300L stainless steel tanks. In contrast, my daughter recently started working at Indigo Books and they had a full day of training in lifting and back care. I’m sure I already was suffering the onset some weakened muscles when I went to my regular aerobics class and I did a forward folding stretch in the cool down (something I had done many times before) and could almost hear let alone feel the tearing in my back. It left me walking around like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. After time off work, visits to my doctor, chiropractic care, massage therapy and so on, I still had lingering effects and there were days when I could barely bend over to touch my knees let alone get anywhere near my toes. That tearing is an example of an acute or traumatic injury: an injury that occurs suddenly. Obviously, if you experience this you should seek the advice of your physician or physical therapist immediately.
Some injuries are not as obvious at first and you can find yourself wondering if it’s muscle soreness or injury. Should you work through it or seek help. If you work hard at the gym or exercise class you might experience the muscle burn of working hard and fatiguing your muscles. That’s normal, but if you overwork and feel real pain, especially any sharp, shooting pains, that is a signal that you may have strained a muscle and you will cause worse injury if you try to work through it. It’s time to R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate). If the pain persists, seek the advice of your physician or physical therapist.
Then there is the day after a good hard workout when you feel like a bow-legged cowboy walking in slow motion. This is known as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and is an inflammatory response to the micro-tears in your muscles, which will eventually result in growing stronger muscles. Not everyone experiences this so it really isn’t an indicator of whether or not you had an effective workout. It’s just your body’s individual response, which may be affected by genetics or diet. This soreness can last up to 72 hours. You can continue to workout with a light workout that includes a good warm-up and stretching and focus on different muscle groups giving the sore muscles a chance to rest. DO NOT take any pain medication such as Advil before the workout, since this will mask the pain and you won’t be able to tell if you are doing further muscle damage until it’s too late (the same goes for before singing – you can overstrain and damage your vocal folds without realizing it if you are on pain meds). Though I’m not a fan of any medications and try to use natural methods like ginger and tumeric, you can take painkillers after the workout to help lower inflammation if it really is uncomfortable. R.I.C.E. can help, too. If the pain lasts longer than 72 hours you may need to seek the advice of your physician or physical therapist.
There is also the repetitive strain or overuse injury. This is slow to manifest itself and quite often occurs because of muscle imbalances, poor form or insufficient recovery time. The pain is usually low grade to begin with, which may make it seem insignificant and not worth requiring medical attention. Symptoms will include discomfort in daily activities (eg. going down stair or sleeping, even singing), and a progression in the intensity of pain with continued exercise or activity. Again in the first 72 hours of noticing the pain R.I.C.E. and if it continues seek the advice of a physician or physical therapist.
If you look back on what I’ve written, every paragraph ends with, “If the pain persists, seek the advice of your physician or physical therapist.” I cannot stress this enough. If you don’t get the attention it needs even if it seems like a small, insignificant pain at the time, continued use of the muscles/tendons/ligaments involved can lead to chronic problems.
Remember that in the end I am looking at how this will affect you as a singer! As I always say, your body is your instrument. Back pain can affect our breathing, injured legs can affect our ability to move on stage as well as offering a firm base for our breath mechanism, and so on. Knowing the signs and symptoms to look for to distinguish between soreness and injury will allow you to get the timely help you need to keep you in prime singing form.
For me it was definitely not always easy to sing with pains that at times made breathing a struggle and affected my alignment. It can be done, but now that I’m pain-free I see that there is so much to be gained from a freely moving painless instrument. How did I beat my pain? Really, I did try so many things and taxed my budget on chiropractors, physical therapists and massage therapists (the joys of being self-employed with no insurance coverage). This is another full story, but there were two key factors that really brought about the change: one was ART (active release technique) and the second was PiYo (I credit it with my recovery so much that I have now become a certified PiYo Live Instructor).