This is one of the tensegrity models I use in my studio.
This is one of the tensegrity models I use in my studio.
The word tensegrity, incidentally, was coined by Buckminster Fuller of BuckyBall and geodesic dome fame
The word tensegrity, incidentally, was coined by Buckminster Fuller of BuckyBall and geodesic dome fame
Buckminster Fuller explaining tensegrity.

Tensegrity is a Thing

This question comes from Wannes Debruyne on Facebook.

Hi John, a few days ago I’ve seen your video on drumeo, and I was wondering if you might want to answer one question. A few years I keep on getting upper back pain after I’ve practised several hours a day, it’s driving me nuts.

I’ve seen a chiropractor who examined me and told me that my spine and such on a skeletal level is fine, but I strain the muscles too much. So he advised me to go swimming, which I’m doing twice a week since the last half year. But the pain is still there, so that made me wondering about my posture and the way I play the drums. The pain starts as a little bit punchy and when I played for longer periods, the next day it slightly stings.

It’s always the same pain and it occurs in the same pattern, I can play 1-2 hours playing painfree and after that, drumming is like a torture. It’s right between both shoulderblades, but slightly a bit down. I only experience this pain while playing drums.
 
What can I do to prevent this?

 

Thanks for the question! First things first. If it is always the same pain and occurs in the same place under the same conditions, chances are there might be something torn. In this case, give yourself some time off and see if that helps. That’d be the place to start with this. 
 
Your chiropractor would be hip to this, though, and if he says you strain your muscles too much, then that’s probably the problem. Here’s why it’s a problem. 
 
The old-school way of seeing the body is solely as a compression structure. A compression structure is what you probably think of when you thick of a structure. A brick wall, for example. In a brick wall, the weight of the top brick is delivered directly into the bricks below. Each element in a compression structure is designed to be compressed. While this way of looking at the body is true, the human body is also a tensegrity structure.
 
A tensegrity structure uses hard compressible elements, connected together by stretchy elements that get pulled. The tension on these stretchy elements is the tense in tensegrity. It is hard to visualize through just words, so check out this video by Tom Myers, author of Anatomy Trains.
 

These images are from Anatomy Trains and show how the body works as an integrated whole.

In the human body, the hard parts are the bones while the soft stretchy parts are connective tissue (fascia et al) and muscles. Some parts of the body, such are the arches in the foot or the central location and vertebrae-on-vertebrae construction of the spine have major compression elements. These design elements allow for the weight of the body to travel through the skeleton and into the floor or object to be moved.

Other parts clearly have tensegrity components. The arms, for example, barely connect to the rest of the skeleton at all. There is no compressible mechanism for the weight of the arms to travel to the rest of the skeleton. In fact to only joint to connect the two is the sternoclavicular joint, between the collarbone and the breastbone, and compressionally speaking, it only braces the arm when you push something away from you, and doesn’t seem to serve much weight bearing function at all. Instead, there is a dense net of connective tissue that supports the arms – just as you’d expect from a tensegrity structure.

Of course, the body combines both in each structure. If the spine were a compression structure only, you’d expect to see it completely straight in order to support the weight instead of the S curves we actually see. The way the arm bones connect enable it to create a baseball bat of sorts that Kung fu masters use to smash bricks. Overall, this combination allows the body to be flexible in general and rigid when it suits. It is a wonderful thing.

Tensegrity structures have a number of unique properties, such as a high strength-to-weight ratio and high mobility. The relevant property top your question is that the entire structure contributes the movement of any one part. You can think of it as a sweater – if you pull on one part you affect the entire sweater.

We are used to compression structures allow for isolated, independently moving parts. With an action figure, for example, you can independently move one arm without affecting the other. Tensegrity structures aren’t like that. Moving one part pulls on everything around it, and that then compresses the other hard parts, which stretch out the other stretchy parts, … so on and so forth until the entire structure is affected.

This total integration is why a tensegrity structure can be so movable, strong and light all at the same time. The force applied to one part of it is distributed and shared by the entire structure. If one part of the structure is held still, prevented from moving, then this process is disrupted. The force cannot be shared normally, so it builds up and over-stresses something. Additionally, the flexibility of the entire structure is compromised. The forces that would normally be distributed through the entire structure get focus one one area and the structure breaks down.

This is where I finally wind back to your question. A tensegrity structure doesn’t always break down where you expect it to.  A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Because everything is pulling on everything else, you can get shoulder pain from a hip problem, or wrist pain from a shoulder problem. (I have direct experience from both of these!)

 The area between the shoulder blades is very complex – partly because the shoulder structure itself is crazy complex but also because a lot of different factors affect the area. It is well beyond my ability to provide any more than a few things that you might consider here – and for something like this a trained professional is likely to do some amount of guess-and-check until the cause of the problem is discovered. This is again because it could be so many things to cause what you’re describing.
 
For example, posture. If you slouch, your shoulders will round forward. this is going to stretch out and add tension to the area between the shoulder blades. If you try to draw your shoulders back to center then that will exacerbate the problem, adding even more tension and compressing the area. Military posture, where you hold your shoulders back and chest out is worse still.
 
Poor head balance (a feature of slouching) can also contribute a lot to the problem. If the muscles and tissues holding the head up are compromised, then the area between the shoulder blades will have to work a lot harder to compensate. Similarly, if the hips are off, or you’re holding your legs up, etc.
 
If you look at the images from Anatomy Trains scattered around, you can see that a lot of them run through the area you’re talking about…  and problems with any of them could cause and/or exacerbate the issue. In your case, my guess is that you’re holding your shoulders up. It is very common, and what happens is that because you’re not allowing the body to move as an integrated whole, the tension builds up and your body starts to complain. Fixing the problem long term would mean finding out where the extra tension is coming from and letting the body move more naturally. 
 
 
Update: Wannes says
I’ve to say that I really pay close attention to how those muscles are behaving and since I limited my practise sessions to 2 hours each time, the pain almost completely disappeared. Guess I wanted too much, in too short time.

That is fantastic to hear! Simply paying attention to your body as you play is really what I’m trying to get people to do with Anatomy of Drumming. The book is meant to motivate drummers to understand and value the information our bodies are giving us. Through learning about how to body is built and how it works enables us to more quickly understand and appreciate that information.

Also, you might be able to get longer practice sessions if you integrate regular breaks. something like 20 minutes of practice then a 10-minute break might give you a lot more time behind the kit overall. Besides, you can always use the break time to transcribe some songs or study music theory.

 
Tensegrity is a Thing
These images are from Anatomy Trains and show how the connective tissue and muscle form integrated structures that run throughout the whole body, rather than isolated parts that work independently.
Tensegrity is a Thing

Disclaimer: 

This information is for your information only. It is not intended to be medical advice and should not be taken as such. The idea here is that the more you know, the healthier and more effective you will be. If you suspect you have a problem that requires medical attention, please see a reputable doctor who is knowledgeable about your problem. .

A closeup of a scuptue by Kenneth Snelson on display in  Big Lake at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
A closeup of a scuptue by Kenneth Snelson on display in Big Lake at the New Orleans Museum of Art.