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I started playing drums when I was five years old. I spent a lot of time working on my technique, with the goal of making playing easier and avoiding injury. I always felt like my technique was very good, and this was confirmed by many of my early teachers and colleagues. I was confident I’d never have any issues.
In the late ‘90s – after having played for a couple of decades – I started to notice a slight tingling in the little finger of my right hand during shows. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first, attributing it to exhaustion, bad circulation, or muscle tension. I was touring all over the world, sometimes spending 18 months on the road with no breaks. Every day I was playing, recording, rehearsing, soundchecking, and practicing.
It was a grueling schedule.
Over a period of about five years, that tingling sensation moved from the tip of my little finger toward my hand. Next, it moved into the ring finger. It got to the point where a few songs into a show, most of my right hand was tingling and turning numb.
You know how it feels when your leg falls asleep, and when you get up, it’s like stepping on pins and needles?
My schedule was totally booked, and I hadn’t even considered taking time off. But then the numbness started bothering me when I wasn’t playing drums. I’d be holding a pen or a coffee cup, or I’d start playing piano or bass, and my fingers would lose feeling.
When the problem spread into my non-musician life, that’s when I got concerned.
About eight years after it started, I went to see a doctor. It took just one test for him to say it:
“Yup…this is very clear. You have carpal tunnel syndrome.”
Most people who develop carpal tunnel work with something that vibrates their hands over and over (truck drivers, bikers, and drummers, for example). But there’s a genetic component as well. Needless to say, I was worried. I was just about to embark on a very long tour.
“I can give you some cortisone steroid injections to make it go away for awhile, but it’ll come back,” he told me. “Maybe you’ll last through this tour, but I recommend you get surgery as soon as you can.”
I got the injections and went on tour.
They worked for the first 3-4 weeks, but soon it was just as bad as before. When I went back to the doctor, he told me that without surgery, it was only going to get worse. “You’re risking permanent nerve damage. This is a serious matter. Get surgery as soon as possible and take time off.”
But I didn’t. The truth is, I was worried about getting surgery, and I couldn’t take time off. I needed temporary relief. Instead of taking the doctor’s advice, I tried every other treatment I could find. Acupuncture, moxibustion (traditional Chinese therapy), hot towel wraps, massages, vitamin treatments, creams…anything you can imagine. And I did that for another year or so.
I had now been dealing with these symptoms for ten years. At this point, I couldn’t feel anything in my right hand, including pain. I’d cut myself when I was cooking or pinch my finger in a door, and…
I remember one occasion in Italy where I was hurrying down a narrow backstage hallway on my way to soundcheck. Someone opened a door as I was running past. The door had a key stuck in it, and I heard a loud clonk as it hit my hand. I didn’t think much of it as I ran toward the stage and sat down behind the drums. Everything was dark as I put in my in-ears and started playing. I had an odd sweet taste in my mouth.
As the lights came up, I realized that everything was full of blood. It was all over my face and my drums. There was a huge gash on the back of my hand from smashing it on the key. I hadn’t felt a thing.
As the lights came up, I realized that everything was full of blood.
When you have no sensation in your hands, you tend to grip everything harder. I couldn’t feel myself holding my sticks. No vibration, no rebound. The only way I knew that the stick was even in my hand was by seeing it and hearing it.
Over time, I ended up pinching it too hard. Because of this, I developed a ‘trigger finger’ in my right thumb, which basically locks your thumb into one position. In order to play a show or clinic, I had to use my left hand to ‘unlock’ my right thumb (which would make a snappy, clicky sound), put the stick in my right hand, and lock my thumb back into the playing position. Afterwards, I had to use my left hand to take the stick out of my right hand again.
I was suffering in silence. Thankfully, nobody seemed to notice changes in my playing. But people would say, “Man, you look so unhappy.” Pain and tingling kept me up at night. My left hand had been getting worse as well. I couldn’t sleep on the road. It was torture.
I went back to the doctor the day after that tour ended. “Okay, you were right,” I said. “I should’ve listened to you four years ago. I need surgery.” The doctor ran a few tests and found that the carpal tunnel had indeed gotten worse. I was very close to having permanent damage.
“Come in at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning and let’s get it done,” he said.
A lot went through my head. Will everything go back to normal? Will surgery make it worse? Thankfully, my doctor is a revered hand surgeon. He assured me the improvement would be instant. I’ll always remember what he said next:
“I know you’re worried because you’re a world famous musician who’s competent in your area of expertise. Well, I’m a world famous surgeon who’s competent in my area of expertise. I’m going to fix you and everything’s going to be fine.”
The next day, he performed both a full decompression surgery and a trigger finger release on my right hand. It took about 45 minutes. When I came to, my hand was still numb from the anesthetic and painkillers, and I went home shortly after.
The drugs wore off two or three hours later, and I remember getting a text from a friend asking how the surgery went. I started typing a response on my phone.
For the first time in ten years, I could feel the keyboard under my fingertips.
So this is what it’s supposed to be like.
For the first time in ten years, I could feel the keyboard under my fingertips.
I touched my hair and felt it under my hand. I could touch my face and feel stubble, or turn the page in a magazine and feel the paper between my fingers. I sat down on the piano and felt the keys for the first time in years. I was given a whole new lease on life. Even though I had a giant scar on my hand, everything was just a joy.
Every day after the surgery, I did 90 minutes of hand therapy. I was told to be consistent and disciplined with this, and after ten days my stitches were removed and the wound had completely closed up.
I played a drum festival in San Jose about four weeks later. While I hadn’t played drums in a month, I couldn’t believe it; my right hand was back to normal and I could feel the rebound and stick vibrations. It was amazing. So when my left hand worsened in the year that followed, I scheduled time off for a second surgery. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the post-op therapy as seriously as I had before, so recovery took twice as long.
Soon after I had the stitches removed, I jumped into a pool, hit my hand on the bottom, and reopened the wound.
A month later, I tried to play again. But I had very little control, no power, and a strange shaking in my left hand. I continued with therapy and saw my surgeon a few times, but I was still weak after almost two months. As one of the few contemporary players who still played traditional grip, I was proud of my technique. But I knew it was never going to be the same. I started playing matched grip on my left hand and never looked back.
(Here’s a video of me jamming with Stewart Copeland only three days after my second surgery. That was stupid. Bashing around that day definitely prolonged the recovery, but I just couldn’t resist.)
My takeaway from the whole experience is this:
Things never go exactly as planned. There are always surprises, both positive and negative. You have to roll with the punches, adapt, keep an open mind, stay on track, and overcome handicaps and setbacks with a positive attitude. There is a solution to every problem and there is always a way forward if you are passionate and committed.
Listen to advice from competent people around you. Focus on the positive even in dire situations, and let go of fear of failure. Get advice from the best and trust their expertise. Once you feel confident, go with what these specialists tell you and do exactly what they say. Follow instructions and things will turn out just fine.
There are tragic stories of musicians who gave up playing – or even committed suicide – because of a wrong diagnosis, or because they were told that things couldn’t be improved. I personally knew fellow musicians who experienced that, and it’s tragic and unnecessary. Stay positive, seek help, be optimistic, and things will turn out beautifully.
We are musicians. We are artists. Music and art are not sport. There is no competition. There is no finish line. We all express ourselves through drums and music and we do what we can as individuals with our unique means.
While I was suffering from carpal tunnel, I focused on the wrong thing: the illusion of technical and physical perfection. There is no such thing in art, and I’m glad I learned to let go of that in order to play and perform with more ease and joy.
I let my experience with carpal tunnel syndrome become a lot worse by overthinking and over-intellectualizing and worrying about potential negative outcomes. If it doesn’t feel right, do something about it. Don’t let your rational thoughts override your initial emotional response in important decisions like this.
Listen to your body.
This way, you’ll be able to keep creating wonderful music that touches people.
*If you’re a drummer struggling with carpal tunnel syndrome and would like to make an appointment with the specialist mentioned in this story, feel free to direct your questions by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (805-370-6877) to Glenn D. Cohen, M.D. in Westlake Village, California.*
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