Artists fine-tune their bodies at specialized Toronto clinic

When the bodies of musicians and other artists take a beating after endless hours of practice and performing, staff at a special clinic step in to help ease the pain.

'A lot of suffering is suffered in silence' when livelihood is threatened, director says

Toronto drummer Steve Thomas was diagnosed with dystonia from repetitive movements. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Steve Thomas remembers the day in 1992 when his entire right side seized up.

"All of a sudden I lost co-ordination between my hands and my feet. Nothing was working."

Thomas wasn't having a stroke, nor was it Parkinson's disease. Rather, the drummer, now 68, was eventually diagnosed with dystonia — a neurological movement disorder provoked by years of repetitive movements.

It nearly ended his career. Instead, staff at a hospital clinic devoted exclusively to the artistic community saved it.

The Artists' Health Centre at Toronto Western Hospital treats musicians, dancers, painters — anyone who uses their body to express themselves. It looks like an average medical centre, but a piano in one room and a picture of William Shakespeare in another hint at a space that the hospital says is unique in Canada.

Using a combination of traditional and alternative medical treatments, doctors and therapists treat more than 600 patients a year. Toronto dancer Celina Lee is one of them.

Salsa moves have taken their toll. "There's a lot of forward connection with your arms with salsa. So depending on how you compensate can affect the shoulders and certain parts of the body."

The team, led by medical director Dr. Chase McMurren, believe artists are like elite athletes. Their bodies take a beating after endless hours of practice and performing.

Lang Lang, left, got some help from protegé Maxim Lando on the piano at a Toronto concert. (Yanjun Li/CBC)

Disabling injuries often occur to their neck, arms, and back. But the precarious nature of their livelihood often forces artists to hide the pain.

Recently, German researchers looked at  responses from more than 700 orchestra musicians. They concluded that often "chronic pain develops because the problem is ignored."

"Sometimes it's too scary to notice that something doesn't feel quite right because it doesn't feel right. Then how will next month's rent get paid?" McMurren said.

"A lot of suffering is suffered in silence," he said.

'A huge layer of mental anguish'

For Thomas, a drummer who has played with superstars like Sting, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Wonder, his craft was his bread and butter. And when the pain became so bad that he had to bow out of a set, it scared him.

"I said, 'What's going on?' You start thinking, 'I'm falling apart before my time.'"

That's what fans of acclaimed pianist Lang Lang feared as well. He's been called the planet's hottest classical artist. But an inflammation in his left arm almost turned into a career killer. Lang Lang took time off and only returned to the stage recently.

"A few months ago I was very nervous, because when there's pain, you never know when it's going to be OK," he said before a recent performance in Toronto.  

You start thinking, "I'm falling apart before my time."— Steve Thomas

But it still isn't perfect. Performing alongside Lang Lang was his 15-year-old protegé Maxim Lando, whose left arm  provided much needed relief as the two pianists played complicated masterpieces like George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

"He will play lots of notes. A little bit more than me tonight. There's some crossing hand things and it will be Maxim!," Lang Lang said, as the two broke out in laughter.

World-renowned classical pianist Lang Lang is slowly making a return to the stage, following an injury to his left arm. On a recent performance in Toronto, the Chinese star got a helping hand from protege Maxim Lando 1:10

McMurren, who plays the piano, believes artists need a place where they can access specialized care.

"For musicians in particular, but artists in general, there's a huge layer of mental anguish and anxiety associated with the whole thing because their performance is contingent on their body doing what they need to do."

Thomas took physiotherapy for his dystonia. He learned proper posture, including how to hold his drumsticks better. And he got his career back on track, now performing with confidence and pain-free.

The Artists' Health Centre plans to expand its operations to include more mental health programs for patients, so that artists can have bodies and minds finely tuned to pursue the art they love.

About the Author

Marcy Cuttler is an award-winning journalist and producer with 35 years of experience at CBC.

With files from Kas Roussy