Understanding a Career Killer: Focal Dystonia

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About one to two percent of professional musicians will develop focal dystonia, potentially ruining their careers. After Parkinson’s disease and “essential tremor,” it is the third most common movement disorder, yet its precise cause remains unknown.

Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Tokyo String Quartet violinist Peter Oundjian and Chicago Symphony Orchestra oboist Alex Klein have all been stymied by this neurological disorder.

A number of researchers are seeking to better understand its causes, and why there's a particular link to musicians. An organization called the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) is convening what it bills as the first-ever Musician’s Dystonia Summit, on March 9-10 in New York. The conference is expected to be a gathering of medical experts and musicians to “review the latest research, support affected musicians and chart new directions toward better treatments.”

Musician’s dystonia is characterized by involuntary, controllable muscle spasms triggered by playing an instrument.  The muscles spasms are present only when playing the instrument and disappear at rest.

Perhaps the most famous sufferer of the debilitating condition, Fleisher was stricken in his right hand and was forced to withdraw from public performance in 1965. He began receiving effective treatments in 1995, which compounded with Botox injections in the last decade, brought a well-publicized comeback to the concert stage.

Researchers Analyze Piano Playing Using Motion Capture

Meanwhile, academics at the University of Southampton have developed a system using infrared motion capture cameras to track the movements of pianists' hands. The resulting images -- known as HAWK (Hand And Wrist Kinematics) -- give an insight into the posture of each player's hands on the keys with experts hoping to show how movements translate into different sounds.

The technique is similar to those used in Hollywood films for special effects and its practitioners say it will provide new information on musicians' hand health, to combat wrist injury including repetitive strain injury.

Dr. Cheryl Metcalf told BBC News that it could track the "nuances and idiosyncrasies" of individual pianists. "We can look at the very fine movements of the fingers, hands, wrists and thumbs very accurately," she said.

In a statement, professor David Owen Norris said: "It's fascinating to watch pianists' hands. Audiences always want to see exactly what's going on with those flashing fingers, and pianists look at hands too; we argue about the best ways to make certain sounds and we compare what different players do with their fingers and their wrists."

Watch this video to see how the HAWK technique works (which the University of Southampton has patented):