A repetitive strain injury (RSI) results from repeated motions over an extended period of time. Also called repetitive stress injuries, RSIs can be painful and debilitating. With long hours practicing very precise hand and finger movements, musicians are especially prone to RSIs. They can suffer damage to muscles, tendons, and nerves. The injuries can hinder a musician's ability to perform and work. As such, they may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.
How RSI Can Affect Musicians
Musicians often have to hold their bodies in specific positions for extended periods of time. They have to engage in repetitive, intricate movements with their hands and figures. Picture a violinist holding their instrument between their neck and shoulder. Their head is turned to the side. The other hand holds the bow in a particular way as they play. The melody is beautiful, but the repetitive strain adds up.
Repetitive strain injuries are sometimes also called cumulative trauma disorder. The musculoskeletal disorder impacts a large number of musicians, both professional and amateur. As many as three-quarters of symphony orchestra musicians experience severe RSI. This affects their performance and their overall well-being. If it hurts to play, it becomes more difficult or even impossible to play correctly.
RSIs often affect smaller joints like those in your fingers and hands. Imagine a concert pianist, for instance. RSIs also commonly impact wrists, elbows, arms, shoulders, and knees. As musicians play their instruments, they engage in the same motion repeatedly. These motions and positions can be awkward, even with practice. This leads to RSIs like tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and trigger finger. They may also suffer from tennis elbow and back sprains. The added psychological stress of pitch-perfect performances can intensify the pain and discomfort caused by RSIs.
Other Occupations Associated With RSI
Practically anyone can suffer a repetitive strain injury. Many jobs involve enduring the same or similar strain over and over again. RSIs are some of the most common work-related musculoskeletal disorders today. This includes people with more physically demanding jobs, like manual labor. It also impacts office workers who interact frequently with technology.
Examples of occupations often associated with RSI include the following:
- Secretaries and receptionists
- Athletes and trainers
- Writers, editors, and artists
- Construction workers and other tradespeople
- Grocery store cashiers
- Gardeners and landscapers
- Warehouse and logistics workers
- Factory workers
- Precision engineering and manufacturing
Many factors can contribute to a higher risk of RSIs. Working with computers and other technology is a common example. People who use vibrating tools or work in extreme weather are also prone to RSIs. Carrying heavy loads or engaging in forceful activities are risk factors. Jobs requiring holding the same posture for a long time can also lead to RSIs. Symptoms of RSIs may include pain, swelling, numbness, muscle spasms, stiffness, and a tingling feeling.
List of Musicians Who’ve Had RSI
The reality is that most musicians will develop an RSI at some point in their careers. Many of these injuries may go unreported and untreated. They may feel the pain in their hands as just “part of the gig.” From rock and roll to symphony orchestras, RSIs are a common occurrence. Some musicians who’ve likely had RSI include the following:
- Jimmy Amade, jazz pianist
- Leo Kottke, folk and blues guitarist
- Leon Fleisher, classical pianist
- Gary Graffman, classical pianist
- Judith Kay, singer, guitarist, and jazz composer
- Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist and keyboardist for Radiohead
- Theresa McGee, freelance pianist, organist, and choral conductor
- Elizabeth Wallfisch, violinist
Severe RSI May Qualify for SSDI Benefits
Musicians and other working professionals with repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) may qualify for disability benefits. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is based on your work history plus your current inability to work due to a medical condition. If you are unable to type on a computer without pain, you become ineffective at your job. The same applies to musicians who can no longer play their instruments reliably and without discomfort.
To qualify for SSDI benefits, you need to have accrued enough work credits. For full coverage, most people need to have earned 40 work credits. Of those, 20 credits must be from the past ten years. Work credits are based on the income on which you paid FICA taxes. For 2023, you earn one credit for $1,640 of income, up to four credits per year ($6,560). The SSA adjusts this dollar amount each year. Younger people may qualify with fewer credits.
One of the main criteria for SSDI eligibility is being unable to participate in substantial gainful activity (SGA). This is work that meets or exceeds an income threshold set by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Severe RSI may qualify for SSDI if it prevents you from gainful employment. It’s worth noting that SSDI is based on whether you can work and not on whether you can find work. A musician who is physically capable of working but does not find a job does not qualify for SSDI.
Meeting the Blue Book Listing for RSI
The Social Security Administration maintains a Blue Book of eligible disabilities. The listing relevant to repetitive strain injuries is Section 1.00 for adult musculoskeletal disorders. While RSI is not named specifically in this section, the requirements outlined here are relevant to RSI sufferers. Section 1.00 discusses disorders of the spine and the upper or lower extremities. It also considers soft tissue injuries under continuing surgical management.
For someone with RSI to meet the Blue Book listing for musculoskeletal disorders, their claim must pass the scrutiny of the SSA. The evaluation process has several requirements:
- Objective medical evidence from an acceptable medical source to establish the musculoskeletal disorder
- Nonmedical evidence to support the severity and duration of the disorder
- A physical examination report from a qualifying medical source detailing clinical findings relevant to the disorder
- Medical reports documenting strength measurement, if relevant
- Imaging and other diagnostic tests, like X-rays, CT scans, and MRI tests
- Documentation describing the effectiveness of treatments taken
- List of assistive devices used to improve stability, dexterity, or mobility
- Longitudinal medical records assessing the severity, duration, and progression of symptoms
- Evidence describing functioning with respect to the work environment
Self-reported pain may be a consideration. But, it is not sufficient on its own. Your SSDI claim must be supported by adequate medical evidence and documentation. This could also involve assessments of your fine and gross movements.
Equaling the Listing With an RFC Assessment
You may also qualify for disability benefits by equaling a Blue Book listing. The SSA may offer a medical-vocational allowance. This describes a situation where your disability stops you from working but doesn’t specifically meet a Blue Book listing. This involves completing a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment with a doctor. They will need to complete a special RFC form from the SSA. In completing the form, your doctor will assess the following:
- Your physical abilities, like being able to lift, push, pull, or carry certain items
- Your mental abilities, like memory and concentration
- Your sensory functions, like hearing and vision
In the context of RSIs, your physical abilities are most relevant. The dexterity in your fingers will affect your ability to play the guitar or piano, for instance. If you can no longer hold the violin on your neck for the duration of a performance, you may be unable to work as a concert violinist.
No Need to Sing the SSDI Denial Blues
The SSDI claims process can be complex and nuanced. It can be challenging for an applicant to complete on their own. It is invaluable to turn to a skilled SSD lawyer for help. John Keefe and the experienced team at Keefe Disability Law have helped hundreds of people with their SSDI applications.
We will work tirelessly to complete the most compelling SSDI application possible for you. We will help compile the right medical evidence to support your claim and guide you through every step of the process. If your repetitive strain injury makes it practically impossible to strum a chord, you may be eligible for disability benefits.