Fit-Harp #3: Slow your (foam) roll – Pain management

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When was the last time you experienced body pain?  When you sit and play for more than an hour does your lower back begin to throb (like mine does)?  How about those forearms?  Shoulders?  Neck (OW my neck…)?

What are you doing about this pain???

painI think that it is human nature to feel like we have to live with pain, and beyond that… deeply ingrained in the feminine (as we are a predominantly female community, sorry guys) psyche to push through pain so as to not be perceived as weak, needy, or a complainer.  I know that this is certainly true of me.  More often than not I choose to ignore my pain and simply push through, convincing myself that it is both normal and really not that bad… in the hopes that it might one day magically disappear.

I was talking to a friend on the phone today who mentioned that he had been speaking with some recording industry people the other day and someone mentioned how harp must be the most relaxing instrument to play.  I mean, come on, it’s beautiful to look at and hear, how could playing the harp not be as relaxing as it is to listen to??  (I laughed out loud at this comment).  My friend, being in-the-know and always on point, quickly corrected this person, and likened playing the harp to playing the drum-set.  I hadn’t ever drawn this specific comparison myself, but it does make perfect sense.  With pedals, levers, strings, music, and that blasted printed carpet that you can see through the strings, playing the harp is, as I like to call it (going even further than my friend), a full-body sport.

Pain is a very real part of playing the harp.  With 30-100 pounds of musical instrument to move, along with the risk of over-use and strain injuries harpists should be all be stretching and muscle health gurus… sadly too few of us are.  While muscle relaxers, chiropractics, surgery, and physical therapy can go a long way for healing more serious injuries, what about those everyday aches and pains we all live with?

Self-Myofascial Release:

Myofascial release may sound like some strange disease, but it is actually a muscle release technique that has been used by professional athletes, trainers, and therapists for years.  The expectations placed upon a professional athlete are not dissimilar to those put upon a harpist, or any musician for that matter.  They and we are expected to prepare (practice/rehearse) and perform under pressure on a regular basis, but where the professional athlete outshines the professional musician can be seen in the kind of self-care they engage in.

LeBron says "go use your foam roller!"

LeBron says “go use your foam roller!”

If LeBron James twists his ankle during a game you bet that he will have a whole team of trainers and therapists stretching, massaging and working to heal that ankle.  If the ball is LeBron’s instrument, and the game his performance, his body is the glue that connects the two and makes the magic happen.

I am not suggesting that you go out and spend a whole bunch of money on professional body work.  There are a great many reasonably priced tools that you can keep in your house that will help you make self-care a priority, and a part of your career in the same way that it is for professional athletes.

So what is myofascial release, and how can you benefit from it?  

Really it’s just a fancy term for self-massage to release muscle tightness or trigger points.  The technique allows you to use specific tools to create localized pressure, allowing the user the ability to control the healing and recovery of muscles, assisting in their ability to function normally and without pain.  Have you heard of foam rolling?  That is myofascial release.

Myofascial release has truly changed my life, and how I experience pain.  I certainly don’t use my tools as often as I should… more realistically they serve an emergency purpose in my life, and only come out when the pain becomes unbearable.  But, I am making a commitment to foam roll after every practice session for the next 3 months, and will report back on my experience after that time.

Check out some of my favorite myofascial tools and how they are used:

  1. Foam Roller ($10-50) – These come in all shapes and sizes, each serving a different purpose.  It might be cheaperFoam Roller to go with a smaller model, but trust me and buy the 36” model.  While smaller foam rollers are great for localized work a larger model gives you many more options for use and more bang for your buck!  My favorite things to do with my foam roller is to lay on it so that it in beneath my shoulders (perpendicular to my body) and then roll from the top to the bottom of my back, and, with the roller in the same position lay with my head on the roller like it’s a pillow, rocking my neck back and forth while changing the angle and position of my legs in order to reach specific trouble areas on my neck.  You can google the words “foam roller” and whatever area you want to focus on and come up with about a million videos demonstrating the proper movements, or check out the following pages for specific exercises for targeted areas:
    1. Neck
    2. Shoulders
    3. Back
    4. Forearms and Upper arms
    5. Legs
  2. Body-Back Buddy ($30-45) – BodyBackBuddyTHIS IS THE BEST TOOL EVER.  It looks a little strange, and will certainly draw some stares and questions from guests if you place it in a visible park of your house… but it is the best tool ever.  The full-sized model has 11 different knobs with which to work out trigger points all over your body (go with the full-size, not the travel model.  The smaller version only has one knob and lacks the leverage of the larger).  The S Trigger_Pointsshaped design allows for supreme control over the amount of pressure that you desire.  I can’t go on about this tool enough.  It has been a life-saver for me and pretty much everyone who I have showed it to now owns one.  Check out the video page of the Body-Back Buddy company to learn more.
  3. Lacrosse BallLacrosse Ball ($4-10) – not a very technical tool, but is great for hand massaging.  Rolling a ball between your hands is great for stretching out and releasing the over-worked muscles in your hands.  Lacrosse balls are great for this because they have just enough give to keep from injuring the muscle tissue, but not as much as say a tennis ball, allowing for more deep-tissue work.  This can also be used to release the forearms by placing the ball on a flat surface and rolling your arms over the ball.
  4. Foot RollerFoot-roller ($5-15) – this is the newest addition to our myofascial tool collection.  The feet have got to be the most under-appreciated body-part.  Without your feet how would you make those pedal changes (or more importantly… walk)?  Foot pain can make it hard to do anything and this tool is designed to help release the muscles that we expect the most of and care for the least. 

Something to keep in mind:

These tools are not a quick fix solution to pain.  In order to experience genuine relief you will need to use these tools consistently and at the beginning it might not be all that comfortable to use them.  Pain is a part of the process to healing… and that pain that you feel (similar to stretching a sore muscle) is the indicator that the work you are doing is needed.  The effort will be well worth it as you experience less pain.

There are so many more tools and options out there than I could ever go over in one blog, and I encourage you to research your options and speak with your physician before beginning a myofascial release routine.  Consider reading one of the many books out there on myofascial release; “The Melt Method” by Sue Hitzmann is next on my reading list (once I finish the biography of Alexander Hamilton… which is FASCINATING) to learn more about foam rolling, and to improve my technique and hopefully my results.

Love your bodyWithout our bodies we would no longer be able to do what we love, play the harp. So, show your body that you care and take a little time every day, or a few times a week, to work on your body the same way you work on your music.  Love your body and it will work for you when you need it to, you will be less likely to sustain significant injuries, and you will feel better on a daily basis!!

Have you ever foam rolled before?  Comment below with what you do in your self-care routine and join me in taking time everyday to take time for your body.  Take care of yourself and your #harpmuscles!!

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About Author

Miami based Dr. of harp, gown-addict, lover of bulldogs, and fitness enthusiast.

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