08:56 AM

To treat musicians' injuries, one therapist takes note from pro athletes

NBC News Now highlights the patient story of Emily Duncan, a lifelong musician who experienced a hand injury that impacted her ability to perform. Duncan sought treatment from Aviva L. Wolff, EdD, OT, CHT, occupational hand therapist at HSS, after enduring countless doctor’s visits, physical therapy appointments, nerve tests and steroid injections. 

Wolff had pioneered an innovative approach to treating sore hands and arms. In her lab, she attaches motion sensors to each musician and analyzes the biomechanics of their playing with multiple cameras, an approach akin to what athletic trainers and conditioning coaches do with professional athletes to tweak a golf swing, a basketball jump shot or pitching form. With the musicians, most of their pain is chronic and the high-tech motion analysis allows Wolff to detect abnormal hand or body placements that are exacerbating their injuries.

While similar in some ways, musicians’ and athletes’ bodies do differ in one key aspect of their performance. “Unlike athletes, musicians have to play without tension,” noted Wolff. “With professional musicians who are using their body optimally, you can see how light they look. It seems effortless, and that’s what you want to see.”

Wolff is currently developing an injury prevention and treatment curriculum for conservatories and orchestras that includes anatomy lessons, stretches and exercises designed for each instrument. She’s also educating her medical colleagues with research from the HSS Motion Analysis Lab that shows specific ways to get injured musicians back to playing in the short-term and in better shape for the long-term. “We are not educated enough in the demands of musicians,” said Wolff. “The musculoskeletal system and our bodies are healing machines. There are solutions out there.”

Wolff created a customized “return to play” plan for Duncan, using the data she captured through her motion analysis studies. One surprise: Though Duncan felt pain and numbness in her hand, Wolff pinpointed exercises for an area no one else had detected as a possible source of the pain — the upper back muscles. “It was really illuminating for her to say, ‘You’re feeling the symptoms here in your hands and your wrist but actually if you strengthen these muscles in the back, that will help your symptoms,” cited Duncan. 

Now Duncan feels secure about her future and her ability to continue to do what she loves best, in the place she loves best. “Slowly but surely as New York is coming back, I’m coming back,” she concluded. “It’s nice to be able to play music again.”

This segment was live streamed via NBC News Now on July 5, 2022. The article and segment can be accessed at NBCNews.com. 

Additional coverage: Phillyvoice.com