How to Deal With Neck Pain

Many musicians suffer from neck pain, and as a bass guitarist I was no exception. Bass guitars are usually heavy instruments, and can put considerable strain on the upper body. My own neck pain developed to the point that is was seriously affecting my sleep and quality of life, as well as limiting the amount of time I could practice the instrument. Read on to find out how I identified and fixed the causes of the neck pain.

Trapezius Muscle

Trapezius Muscle

While learning the bass guitar I had a few aches and pains in my neck and shoulders, but nothing of real concern. Yet when I started playing music professionally, increasing my playing and practice time, these became significantly worse. I would be fine for a couple of months, but then my neck would suddenly spasm and I’d find it difficult to turn my head in one direction. The pain would ease after a few days, but it could take a week for normal function and range of motion to return. The problem seemed to come from the Trapezius Muscle, and I attributed this to the long term results of straining my neck as a teenager, and assumed nothing could be done about it.

A few years later I took up the double bass, and again increased total playing and practice time. This worsened my neck and back problems, and eventually the pain was limiting the amount of practice I could do. It was also making me lose sleep as I couldn’t find a comfortable position for my neck, with or without pillows. At first this would happen once every couple of months or so, but I saw it as part of my job, something to be managed and endured. At the back of my mind there was also the fear that fixing it would require time away from practicing and playing.

While on holiday at this time my partner suggested I go for acupressure with a therapist in Chinatown, London. I was initially sceptical, but it provided considerable pain relief. For some months afterwards I continued acupressure in Glasgow, again with partial relief of the symptoms. While this allowed me to continue playing, it was soon apparent that additional measures were needed to sort the problem completely.

I attended a presentation by Patrice Berque, a physiologist specialising in musicians’ health, and subsequently booked a session with him. Patrice analyses you playing your instrument as part of his diagnosis, and from this he is able to derive functional advice targeted to your specific instrument and technique.

He studied me playing double bass and advised that my posture was wrong due to excessive neck slouching. He demonstrated correct posture, and prescribed stretching exercises to address current symptoms. Applying these for a few weeks resolved the issues caused from playing double bass.

Even with improved posture while playing I still sometimes suffered from neck and shoulder pain of a more elusive type. With the help of some good people from the Basschat forum, we eventually figured out the cause: neck heavy bass guitars. The neck dive on these were putting a constant uneven stress on my neck and shoulders, causing chronic pain. I spent several months playing my Hohner Jack bass, a perfectly balanced headless instrument with no neck dive, and matters improved considerably. After a while I was able to play other instruments again by using the Comfort Strapp, which offers more support than a standard strap.

Many people assume that heavy bass guitars are the cause of neck pain, but after this experience I would hesitate to draw this conclusion. From my own experience, it was not the weight of the instrument at fault, but uneven stress on my neck from a poorly balanced instrument exhibiting neck dive. It’s possible that a heavy, well balanced instrument would be fine, but a light, unbalanced one could cause problems.

Despite these improvements, I was still in pain, but not while or from playing music. I bought Robin McKenzie’s Treat Your Own Neck book, and this highlighted the final piece of the puzzle: I was neck slouching when using the computer and in other areas of life such as driving. His book provides excellent advice on how to fix this, as well as stretches to relieve the symptoms and strengthen muscles weakened through years of bad posture.

In retrospect, I should have addressed bad posture in all areas of my life years ago. I highly recommend the above book to guide you in this regard, it takes no time to read and implement the advice therein. You can buy it from Amazon here.

If in doubt, see a good physiotherapist, who will be able to offer advice that will last a lifetime. This may require an initial financial outlay, but will be cheaper in the long term as chronic pain can lead to loss of sleep, quality of life, time off work and even higher medical costs further down the line if left untreated.


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2 thoughts on “How to Deal With Neck Pain

  1. Had a similiar problem – playing 2 to4 hours a day and getting some neck pain. Discovered this was caused by continually looking right (left handed bass player) at the bass neck while playing (so I did not miss notes !). Learned to play while looking ahead and only occasional glances towards the neck has solved the problem for me – also varying sitting and standing during a session helps as well. Agree a good trap helps tremendously.

  2. Thanks for the comment Brian, I’m glad you’ve managed to solve the problem. As well as potentially causing neck strain, I find that looking at the neck too often while playing is detrimental musically – it’s best to get around the instrument through tactile and aural sense rather than sight.

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