Mysterious Neurological Disease Targets Professional Musicians

Scientists and Artists Seek Answers at First-ever Musician's Dystonia Summit

A neurological disorder called dystonia is estimated to have ended the careers of at least one member of every major American metropolitan orchestra. Dystonia has claimed the livelihoods of musicians across genres including the acclaimed pianist Leon Fleisher of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, former first oboist of the Chicago Symphony Alex Klein, acoustic guitarist Billy McLaughlin, classical guitarist Liona Boyd, keyboard player Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and others.


The Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) is convening the first-ever Musician's Dystonia Summit, March 9-10, 2012 in New York City. Leading medical experts and musicians will convene 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. String and piano players experience symptoms in the fingers and hands. Brass and woodwind musicians develop symptoms in the hands or embouchure, the muscles of the face and lips. Musicians may perceive the early symptoms of dystonia as the result of faulty technique or lack of sufficient preparation.


Billy McLaughlin began experiencing symptoms at the height of his career. He began white-knuckling his way through performances, baffled by the realization he could no longer play his own compositions. "I went from intricate and beautifully composed pieces to whatever I could get my fingers to play," he explains. Critics began to speculate that McLaughlin had a substance abuse problem because of his sudden and uncharacteristically "sloppy" playing. He was diagnosed with dystonia in 2001.


Treatment of musician's dystonia is limited, and few musicians are able to regain the technical proficiency achieved prior to the onset of symptoms. However, several musicians have succeeded in reviving their careers by dramatically altering performance techniques over a long period of time.


Recent data estimated that one to two percent of professional musicians are affected by dystonia, but there are likely large numbers of musicians living with symptoms who remain unidentified.


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