Rock and Roll Ergonomics: Low Back Protection

The Rock and Roll doctor is in. Dr. Ricky Fishman, San Francisco, CA,-based Chiropractor and veteran bass player is uniquely qualified to evaluate and treat the challenges that musicians face. Back pain due to hauling gear, repetitive stress injuries due to hours of playing – the “Musician’s Chiropractor” has seen it all. Visit Dr. Fishman’s website for information about him, his philosophy and the Musician's Chiropractic Project.

By Dr. Ricky Fishman

You are into your second set of the night. The Les Paul® strung over your shoulders pours out hard and soulful sounds through the monster 100-watt, 2x12 combo amp behind you. As you reach for that perfect note you feel a twinge in your low back, then a sharp stab deep in your spine and the life is suddenly sucked out of that singing lead. You think anxiously about loading that amp back into the car after the gig.

The low back pain we experience is usually the result of lumbar flexion – bending at our waists. With 12 pounds of guitar or bass on our backs, our paraspinal muscles scream as they work to pull us above our pelvic centers, our discs bulging dangerously, their internal fibers tearing away from each other as inflammatory fluids rush in to control the damage. Nerves compressed by the mechanical and biochemical and pressure fire causing pain and spasm. Sometimes, when the damage is severe, we feel shooting pains down our legs.

It’s All About the Core

Given the mechanical realities of the rock and roll life, we need to brace ourselves. We need protection from these overwhelming stresses. It’s all about the core. With core strength, a drummer lifting his or her 75-pound hardware case will still absorb the amplified forces sharply concentrated deep in the low back. But the damaging effects will be greatly minimized with balanced core strength.

But this is only the physical part of the problem. There are other, less obvious challenges. Like the show. Hours of “let loose playing,” jamming and doing what we do for the reasons we all understand. And when we enter that “zone” where mind and body disconnect, where we disappear in a cloud of divine vibration, we feel no pain and transcend our burdensome bodies. But the body keeps working, mind detached or not. And with that Les Paul hanging over your shoulder you might be jamming out in ecstasy but the facet joints of your lumbosacral spine still scream. And after the gig, you will know your beaten body again.

The Importance of Harmonic Balance

So when on stage, lost in the music, maintain a thread of connection to your conscious mind. Cultivate a gentle, mindful awareness of your mind-body totality. Feel the music and your body simultaneously and visualize a space where it all comes together in harmonic balance. And if you know that bending over is what will mess you up, then lean back. Stand upright. Do a few back bends. The audience will dig your move. The cool, bouncing lean-back. And for those longer shows, leave the Les Paul at home and bring the SG. Hey, it was good enough for Duane Allman!

Prevention and Maintenance

Everything I have described so far has been about prevention and maintenance. But if you bend over and lift a large speaker cabinet and feel a sudden sharp low-back pain accompanied by searing leg burning…stop! Get help and do not continue lifting. If the pain doesn’t quickly subside, see a health care practitioner who understands the diagnosis and treatment of these injuries.

We play because we love to play, so we haul our equipment from home to car to studio or club and then home again, often enduring low-back pain caused by the bend over, the grab and the lift. But we are not powerless to prevent and manage the natural wear and tear of our chosen Rock and Roll lives. Exercise, stretching, ergonomic understanding and mindful attention paid to posture and position will help preserve and protect our bodies so that we can enjoy the long musical lives we envisioned when we picked up an ax and were raised up by that first power chord.