Chinese Medicine and the Musician

2001 Health Care Supplement

Volume CI, No. 5May, 2001

Greg Ruvolo, L.Ac.

This year’s Health Supplement focuses on alternative medicine – specifically, on the value of Chinese medicine, nutrition and biofeedback to musicians. The authors of two articles are 802 members who have developed careers in health care.

Trumpet player Greg Ruvolo began an intense exploration of alternative medicine two decades ago, while battling a life-threatening illness. He found acupuncture particularly helpful, later began studying with a Chinese doctor, and subsequently went through a licensing program. Ruvolo has been practicing for about five years, with musicians making up about 60 percent of his practice.

Building and maintaining a career as a professional musician can often place extraordinary demands upon one’s physical and emotional wellbeing. I often wonder if instrument makers of the past could have ever imagined that modern musicians would be holding their instruments for unnaturally long periods of time, sometimes under extremely adverse conditions. This article seeks to address a few of these concerns as they relate to the health issues today’s musicians face, and how they can be treated by Chinese medicine.

I treat a wide variety of health problems in my practice. However, when treating musicians, I have observed several common complaints, two of the main ones being overuse syndrome and mental stress. Overuse syndrome is directly related to the particular instrument you play, the amount of time spent playing and practicing, and your posture. This can lead to many painful distractions such as neck, shoulder and joint pain, tendonitis, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.

For millennia, Chinese medicine has recognized a direct relationship between the emotions and physical health. The emotions not only generally affect hormonal secretions, but can promote or suppress the secretions of neurotransmitter hormones. These can regulate brain functions such as memory and intellectual abilities, bodily movements, mood regulation and attention span, and they govern the release of endorphins that regulate our reception and response to pain and pleasure. Mental and emotional stress have been proved to play a significant role in causing disease.

Think how annoyed you can get when placed in an uncomfortable situation – fog blowing in your face, trumpets blaring in your ears, or not having enough room to situate yourself properly. You want to scream but you can’t, because the music is pianissimo and you could lose your job and never work again. . . When emotions are intensified over a prolonged period of time, they can create imbalance in your entire being, physically as well as emotionally. Chinese medicine is here to help you!

On the other hand, you may be a happy camper – but overuse can still cause pain. One of my patients recently told me about the extraordinary length of time she has to hold up her alto flute during a performance. After she created a sling to hold the end up, her neck and shoulder pain disappeared.

Chinese medicine offers a number of approaches to relieve and resolve these problems. This ancient medicine diagnoses and evaluates each person’s state of balance/imbalance using the interdependent principles of yin and yang theory. Yin is the expression of the receptive or passive state, while yang is the expression of the aggressive or active state. Qi (pronounced chee), our life force energy, and yin and yang are the unifying theoretical basis of Chinese medicine and connect the individual with all aspects of being. The Qi flows in the meridians, which are pathways traveling throughout and connecting the entire body.

Acupuncture is the most widely used technique. This involves the insertion of very fine needles into specific points on the body. It serves to reestablish the normal flow of Qi in the meridians adjusting the body’s yin and yang balance. This promotes healing of the affected region, reduces inflammation, and softens muscle tightness as it attracts white blood cells and B-lymphocytes to the needle site. Acupuncture also causes the release of endorphins, which aid in the healing process, and it offers longterm benefits for general health and balance throughout the body.

Herbal medicine may also be used in the healing process. It is administered in several forms: loose herbs cooked as a tea, granules which are precooked and spray-dried (these methods give us the freedom to tailor-blend a formula for a specific patient), pills or capsules (patent formulas that work well but are more generally tailored to address a specific area – i.e., there are a number of patent formulas for digestive problems). Herbs can also be applied topically as a wash, oil, alcohol tincture, etc. It is important to realize that herbs are potent medicine and are used for a wide variety of problems. They should not be self-prescribed, despite what you are told in health food stores.

Tuina (pronounced tway-na), a form of Chinese bodywork, is a manual therapy used to remediate soft tissue, joint and tendon problems by improving the flow of Qi, blood and body fluids.

Nutrition and special exercises are also part of this paradigm. This is what you do for yourself between treatments to help bring about change and maintain balance.

Treatments are usually given weekly for an undefined period (generally, about 10 visits), and then spread out to four to eight times a year to maintain balance and keep the body systems “tuned.”

I hope that this brief article has served as an introduction to how Chinese medicine may relate to your health. True healing can occur only when the individual is guided and encouraged to make whatever positive changes are necessary to achieve body-mind wholeness.

Local 802 member Greg Ruvolo is a New York State-licensed and nationally certified acupuncturist who maintains a private practice in Manhattan. He serves on the faculty of the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and the Swedish Institute. He also remains active as a trumpet player.