My Experience with Tendonitis


Randy Ellefson 2013After playing electric and acoustic guitar for years, I took up classical guitar in college. The only problem was having two years of music school left, and now four years of playing requirements to catch up on. I managed to graduate on time anyway, but the result of so much practice wasn’t pretty.

A year later, the tendinitis (also spelled “tendonitis”) silently building in both arms suddenly came to life in August 1996. Within months, I lost my job, all guitar playing, classical composition, typing and the fiction, every career and postgraduate plan, friends, savings, hobbies, pretty much everything. Temporarily crippled and unable to use my arms, I was unemployed for a year, sinking slowly into debt, and only partially able to take care of myself. Having lost the music and fiction were the least of my problems. I lost 2 1/2 years of my life to it.

Six months into it, I bought a dictation program that allowed me to dictate text and control the computer by voice (a foot mouse helped). Restricted in the rest of life but free through the dictation program, I spent all day on the computer learning every kind of program available and working on fiction. I also found a private physical therapist who, with her assistant, began successfully treating the injury and establishing at-home treatment. My HMO, which had been unable to help, refused to pay for a thing.

After a year, I met a photographer in need of a part-time assistant. She was a great employer for the disabled, allowing impromptu breaks when the injury flared and whatever hours I could manage (less than 20 a week). Even this caused acute pain and prevented any other activities…or healing. Working to pay unavoidable bills hurt my arms more, requiring more physical therapy that cost more money, which I had to work still more hours to acquire. It was a bad cycle.

My arms needed rest, which meant never using them again on a job at even a normal activity level, but realistically, how many jobs did that leave? The prospects weren’t good, and watching friends move on with their lives while mine had ground to a halt wasn’t pleasant.

Fortunately, me and the photographer stumbled into the solution when we realized she needed a database to track her photographs. Being somewhat hyper-creative, I jumped in to do it without realizing what I was getting myself into, but the classical training had prepared me for all that disciplined thinking. I did the design work with a regular mouse, which I put on the floor and used with my feet. Any writing of text was done with the dictation program. My physical therapist learned of this and asked me to design one for her, bartering hours worked against free physical therapy appointments. That’s when I realized this was it: the career that didn’t use my arms was programming.

This realization, in May of 1998, led to a programming course and self-study. Things were looking up, too, as my playing improved more and therapy appointments went from weekly to every two weeks, then three over the summer. The constant pain was gone, as was the ease with which a flare up could be caused. In fact, only one consistent pain remained, but the unthinkable cause wasn’t learned until early September 1998: the therapist found an entirely new case of tendinitis in each arm, this time on the inside of both instead of the outside. Incredibly, there were now four cases of tendinitis.Tendinitis Paraphernalia

How could this happen? I still used my arms far less than a normal person, but still developed an overuse injury. How? My weakened arms, which came close to atrophying from disuse at one point, could handle so little that even a fraction of normal use was too much and amounted to overuse. And there’s no way to distinguish the forearm pain of an existing case from an approaching one. They’re both forearm pain in the same general area. The very subtle warning signs were masked by the pre-existing case.

Shocked, I realized there was a permanent danger of new injuries, a sobering fact that forced long term adaptations like finally buying the foot mouse, which my finances couldn’t afford but for which my arms could no longer wait. For the second time, the guitar playing disappeared when it hadn’t even fully recovered.

The professional job search started immediately to move away from freelancing, and within six months, I succeeded in March of 1999. I was quite literally saved. Using the foot mouse and dictation program at work, my arms got the rest they needed and started recovering rapidly. By 2000, regular physical therapy appointments ended. The financial situation improved dramatically, making it easy to change the life I’d had over 2 years to think about. Like many who’ve had their life taken from them and get another chance, I was determined to live it better. By May 2001, I was recording instrumentals again, and in early 2002, built a new home studio in which I recorded the debut album.

As of 2010, I no longer use a special mouse, the dictation program, or do any treatment for my arms.  This means no ice, heat, exercises, or even stretching except once in a while, and my playing time restrictions are pretty small. I’ve also been able to play softball (as a pitcher no less) and started playing drums, albeit lightly! With enough time and rest, anything is possible.

 Posted by on February 14, 2015

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: