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Looking over the shoulders of mountain climbers and musicians

Incorrect or over-intensive loading on the tendons and joints of fingers can cause painful overuse injuries and inflammation and arthritis in the fingers of piano players and mountain climbers. Sports scientist Prof. Hartmut Riehle from the University of Constance is focusing on discovering the internal forces that act on the end joints of fingers and how they distribute to the finger structures. It is envisaged that his biochemical analyses will lead to the development of measures aimed at the early prevention of damage to musicians and athletes caused by overstrain.

Force sensors and infrared markers were used to record and measure finger and joint movements. © Hartmut Riehle

Static and dynamic loading of the human hand often results in the unphysiological strain or even damage of biological material (pathomechanism) due to the complexity of the functional-anatomic structures and the complex biomechanics of the interactions of joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments of fingers. Mountain climbers often suffer damage to their fingers due to incorrect, static or too intensive loading. Chronic and recurrent micro-traumas can cause paratendonitis, tendovaginitis, tendosynovitis, inflammation and arthritic degeneration of the finger joints. Both master pianists and amateur pianists often experience pain in their fingers, because the fingers are often exposed to high strain due to the requirements of high spatial and temporal precision.

"The strain and demands on musicians' and mountain climbers' fingers is quite different. Mountain climbers often experience a static overload which can lead to sports-specific damage in the joints of the end and middle phalanges as well as in the annular ligaments of the forefinger, middle and ring fingers. "Because of the need to establish a solid hold on rock faces, extreme mountain climbing can lead to the thickening of the flexor tendons and the collateral ligaments as well as to the formation of osteophytes along the bones as a reaction to the extreme tension of and sheer strain on the bones due to overburdening in climbing," said Prof. Hartmut Riehle.

In order to find ways to avoid such painful damage to both musicians and mountain climbers, the sports scientist Prof. Hartmut Riehle at the University of Constance is carrying out comparative biomechanical analyses of the finger phalanges. Riehle and his team use specific sensors to determine the forces acting on the end phalanges. In addition, Riehle and his team are using mathematical finger models as well as experimental data to investigate the internal forces acting on the phalanges and their distribution to the biological finger structures. "Besides deciphering the force transfer mechanisms and the function of the kinematic change of phalanges, we also hope to get detailed insights into joint-stabilising processes," said Riehle. The researchers also hope that their findings will help them to describe the pathomechanisms and carry out a simulation of joint movements of the hand.

Whole-body analyses using infrared light

The studies also focused on the sitting posture of volunteer piano players. © Hartmut Riehle

A total of 18 master and concert pianists from the Trossingen Conservatoire with an average age of between 20 and 30 years, were closely studied. "The first experiment focused on determining the strain on the fingers when the volunteers performed exercises that are typical for classical piano and organ players," said Prof. Hartmut Riehle. A key measurement was the movement of fingers in opposing directions in any finger combination and at extremely high movement frequencies (trills) and when playing difficult compositions, including ones by Franz Liszt and J. S. Bach. The researchers used force sensors to take the measurements. The finger exercises of the musicians' hands were digitally recorded with an infrared movement analysis system and a camera before being transferred to a computer. "It is impossible to directly measure forces that act on the joints and tendons. That is why we have attached force sensors to the piano keys, which could then be transferred to the finger model in order to calculate the load on the fingers during piano playing," said Riehle. The infrared sensors gave the researchers immediate access to the desired information. The analyses also included information on which note was being played as well as the sitting posture of the musicians.

Simulation skeleton model of movement of the upper extremity, left = skeleton, right = skeleton with markers (schematic).
Simulation skeleton model of movement of the upper extremity, left = skeleton, right = skeleton with markers (schematic). © Hartmut Riehle

The study also focused on recording the musicians’ pulse frequency. “This enables us to make statements on the intensity and load on the pianist during a concert,” said Riehle. Since kinematographic and dynamometric analyses used to measure force cannot be carried out during a concert, pulse frequency measurements were taken during training and concerts in order to enable comparisons to be made with the biomechanical measurements in the laboratory. “We were quite astonished to detect such high frequencies. The frequencies were actually very similar to those of a tennis player,” said Riehle. The data were processed using an SPSS statistics program. The study will be done at a later stage with sports climbers, using the same equipment.

Focus on effortless techniques

Prof. Dr. Hartmut Riehle, sports scientist at the University of Constance © Michael Statnik

The biomechanical investigations involving musicians have shown that the forces required are much greater then previously assumed. The researchers also found that certain techniques are able to considerably reduce these forces without changing the quality of a note. "One of our results showed that on average, when striking the keys the fingers have to exert a medium force of 100 - 200 N (piano forte) and 300 - 500 N (forte-fortissimo) when playing a specific note," said Prof. Hartmut Riehle summarising his team's findings. The researchers also found that the total impulse (p) of a piece composed by Franz Liszt produced 10,415[N*s]. It is interesting to note that the average heart frequency of a musician during a piano concert, which lasted around 72 minutes, was around 170 heartbeats per minute. When the musicians played Franz Schubert's famous Wanderer Fantasy, the key sensory measurements showed that different force and impulse values occurred during the playing of chords within a chord (a chord refers to the playing of four keys simultaneously), since finger differentiation plays an important role in pianists.

The researchers hope to quickly gain further important insights into the prevention of overstrain in musicians and athletes. "Around 60 to 70 percent of all piano players complain of joint damage. We want to counteract this situation. It is really surprising to see that nobody really knows how pianos can be played in a health-conscious way. We found that it is necessary to teach piano players how to play in a health-conscious way and how to recognise students' mistakes at an early stage," said Prof. Hartmud Riehle summarising the results of the research project which is due to finish at the end of 2010.

Further information:
Prof. Dr. Hartmut Riehle
Department of Sports Science
University of Constance
Tel.: +49 (0)7531 88-2743
E-mail: hartmut.riehle(at)uni-konstanz.de

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/looking-over-the-shoulders-of-mountain-climbers-and-musicians