By Christina Liu, Northwestern University ’19
Performing Arts Medicine is a relatively new and developing field of medicine that caters to the needs of performing artists, addressing the variety of medical conditions that result from their profession. These include chronic injuries as well as psychological ones such as performance anxiety and high stress levels.¹ It is therefore unsurprising that there should be specialized medical care for this community of musicians, dancers, singers, and actors.
Northwestern faculty member Dr. Alice Brandfonbrener was a pioneer in the field of performing arts medicine. She established the Medical Program for Performing Artists here at Northwestern in 1985.² The program later moved to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where physicians continue to develop treatment programs and educate artists about injury prevention.
Additionally, there are similar programs developing all around the world. In the U.K., the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM) actually offers free clinical assessments.³ In their 2015 annual review, the BAPAM reported that 71% of registrants sought help with musculoskeletal problems, but psychosocial treatment has also become increasingly prominent, as performing artists are usually afflicted with multiple health problems.³ Performing arts doctors take a holistic approach to treatment, considering factors beyond the injury itself to discover the root cause and prevent further injury. This enhanced doctor-patient relationship is especially important considering the increasing depersonalization in medicine.
Dr. Brandfonbrener explained, “If someone comes in with a sprained wrist, I don’t just look at the wrist; I study the whole patient. A musician’s medical condition frequently stems from multiple sources, including technique, physical conditioning, the repertoire, the instrument—even their emotional state.”⁴ Treatment often involves physical and occupational therapy and psychological services, and also addresses other musculoskeletal injuries as well as vocal cord dysfunction.³
Performing artists are subject to immense physical strain. Dancing takes an obvious toll on the body, and it is very easy for singers to hurt their voices. Instruments are usually asymmetrical, requiring a physically awkward posture to play them.⁵ This becomes problematic particularly because musicians practice such long hours. According to Dr. Brandfonbrener, “In general, music attracts people who are somewhat obsessive by nature, and that’s appropriate in that it requires tremendous discipline to be good.
But some musicians overdo this to try to perfect a technique. Pianists are the worst abusers. They will lock themselves in a practice room six to eight hours a day and then wonder why they hurt.”² Performing Arts Medicine is important not only due to these chronic injuries, but also because it raises awareness about the health problems of performing artists.⁴ These problems are largely unrecognized as needing specialized treatment and need to be addressed, not downplayed, so that treatment can become more readily available.
Universities are beginning to develop formal training in performing arts medicine, as well. The British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, in partnership with University College London, founded a Master of Science (MSc) program in Performing Arts Medicine in 2011.⁶ Additionally, there are post-graduate programs in the U.S. at George Mason University and Shenandoah University, among others.⁷ Raising awareness for performing arts medicine will help performing artists get the help they need and legitimize their health problems.
1. Routen, Barbara. (2015, February 18). Conference to focus on performing arts medicine. Retrieved October 12, 2016, from http://www.tbo.com/brandon/conference-to-focus-on-performing-arts-medicine-20150218/
2. Kates, Joan Giangrasse. (2014, June 12). Dr. Alice Brandfonbrener, 1931-2014. Retrieved October 12, 2016, from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-06-12/news/ct-alice-brandfonbrener-obituary-met-20140612_1_chicago-theatre-performing-artists-winnetka
3. British Association for Performing Arts Medicine. (2015, June). Annual Review 2015. Retrieved October 12, 2016, from http://bapam.org.uk/news/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/BAPAM-Annual-Review-2015.pdf
4. Local Legends. Alice Brandfonbrener, M.D. Biography. Retrieved October 12, 2016 from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/locallegends/Biographies/Brandfonbrener_Alice.html
5. Healthy Performers. Performing Arts Medicine. Retrieved on October 12, 2016, from http://www.healthyperformers.com/performing-arts-medicine/
6. University College London. Performing Arts Medicine Msc. Retrieved on October 22, 2016 from https://www.ucl.ac.uk/surgery/courses/msc-performing-arts-medicine
7. Shenandoah University. Performing Arts Medicine Certificate. Retrieved on October 22, 2016 from https://www.su.edu/athletic-training/athletic-training-programs/performing-arts-medicine-certificate/