For drummer Gary Brown, the beat can still go on--as long as he does his wrist flexibility exercises.
That bit of good news came for Brown, 25, who is suffering from tendinitis, just when he feared he might be told by his doctor that he should stop performing for a couple of months. But Dr. Gerald Ho of La Palma merely cautioned Brown, telling the percussionist that with some adjustments to his drum set and preventive exercises, he could keep playing with his reggae band.
In addition to his internal medicine and rheumatology practice, Ho is one of the few physicians in Orange and Los Angeles counties who specialize in the treatment of musicians' ailments. About 75% of musicians experience a musculoskeletal problem like tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome during their careers, according to experts.
Ho is a cello, bass guitar and piano player himself, and his familiarity with music contributed to his decision to pursue the relatively new medical field, called performance medicine. In practice here since July, Ho currently treats a handful of professional musicians, mostly guitarists. Some of his patients play for famous bands, but they request confidentiality because admitting that they have medical problems could hurt their careers, Ho said.
"Musicians often feel that they have to play through the pain because that is what their teachers taught them," Ho said. "Plus, they are afraid of losing their jobs or the next gig if word gets around that they are having problems."
"Telling a musician he can't play for a while is like telling an athlete they can't run," Ho added.
Brown came to Ho this summer after the percussionist began experiencing sharp pains in his right wrist 15 minutes into a three-hour performance. Brown suspected his problem could be the result of his drumming technique.
"Everyone types generally the same way," Brown said. "But with drums everyone sets up and plays differently. Also, in typing, if it hurts you can slow down. But with the drums, if it's a fast song, you can't just make it a slow one."
"The pain was really affecting my playing," he added.
To supply an accurate diagnosis, Ho had to do more than just physically examine Brown--he had to see him play. So Brown brought in his parts of his drum set, and demonstrated his technique.
Ho recommended Brown adjust the height of his cymbals, try to keep his wrist level, and be aware of his posture and seat level while playing. Also, Ho instructed Brown to stretch his wrists regularly and warm up before playing--a routine few musicians follow.
"I'm trying to create good mechanics for myself by keeping a natural motion," Brown said. "My wrist is feeling a lot better."
Brown said Ho's musical background helped resolve the problem.
"He knows what a hi-hat (a set of cymbals) is," said Brown. "Most doctors you'd have to explain that to."