Does making music break the body?
Dr. Philip Maffetone
The media got it wrong again or was it just another twisted story seeking to ‘sell newspapers,’ as they used to say. Negative news, especially morbid headlines, attracts more people—advertisers too—while misinforming and distorting the public.
A recent high-profile article by major media outlet highlighted the harms supposedly inflicted on musicians who develop serious health problems due to their work. Certainly, banging on the drums improperly, over-strumming the guitar, and straining the voice can be harmful if continued too long. But most musicians overcome these early errors. Can this really lead to early retirement, a downward spiral, or an early death?
No, making music does not break the body.
My work with Johnny Cash, described in popular books and documentaries, and written about here, is a more accurate and bigger picture of the real problem—healthcare abuse and neglect, including overprescribing medications.
But it gets worse.
To say that playing music, whether hobby or profession, including performing, recording, or other activities is harmful is a work of fiction. But when it can be distorted to appear that way, it’s headline hype.
The fact is, when reductions in a musician’s physical, biochemical, or mental-emotional health starts showing symptoms, it’s time to seek help. In most cases, an unhealthy body is the cause and can easily be remedied by improving lifestyle and/or seeking conservative healthcare.
But today’s health services don’t make it easy. If radical care is implemented before conservative options are tried, for example, this becomes a potential problem. There’s no question that surgery, medication, or other more extreme treatment may be required in an emergency, or when simpler and non-invasive approaches have been tried first and are without success. But the cause of the condition should be addressed first.
Johnny Cash was on 43 prescription drugs when he died.
Saving a musician from the pitfalls of such poor healthcare is key. It means avoiding incorrect remedies if they are not the best match for an individual’s needs. Unfortunately, many people inadvertently choose their own therapy by walking through the wrong door: go to a surgeon and you often have surgery; an internist, medication.
Healthcare no longer works together for the good of the patient; the gatekeeper is gone, it seems. Pain killers, steroids, sedatives, and surgery are today’s most common options.
There’s nothing particularly unhealthy about playing music, even the rigors of touring or recording, the toil of songwriting, or other routines unique to music performers. Yet they certainly have their share of various stressors associated with being part of the music industry; but not unlike the work and stress of anyone else.
The ongoing notion that being a musician comes with inherent harm, especially the extreme case of death from illicit drug overdose or suicide, is often highlighted in the media. While these cases do occur, they are significantly less frequent than what poor health and poor healthcare can inflect on an individual. Many more musicians have died from prescription drugs and improper care than other causes.
The media also loves name-dropping, which gets in the way of real reporting. Tom Petty, Prince, Michael Jackson, Nick Drake, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and so many others; then there are the stories about Amadeus Mozart, which may not have as much media headline-grabbing tactics, but plenty of sensationalized Hollywood storylines.
Why not highlight the many musicians who, on the verge of destruction or death, recovered, survived, and went on to have great careers? (Of course, those stories don’t sell as many newspapers.)
Perhaps the saddest part of this topic is that most of the illness, injury, and death is preventable.