Medical Dangers of Jazz

In this second post about jazz and health we focus on the literature regarding somatic illness instead of mental illness. In the previous post we already mentioned drug use as one of the major hazards for jazz musicians. Drug use by jazz musicians can have all sorts of reasons such as the enhancement of creativity, boredom and isolation especially during long road trips or being on tour.

According to a recent article in the Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology: The lost years: the impact of cirrhosis on the history of jazz, this drug and alcohol abuse is probably the reason why the prevalence of liver cirrhoses among jazz musicians is so high. Sometimes in combination with hepatitis B and C or liver cancer. For some name dropping follow the link for the full article above. Among them are Charlie Parker who died at 35 years of age with clinical symptoms of cirrhosis, John Coltrane died at the age of 41 years due to liver cancer and hepatitis B. The authors do have an optimistic suggestion:

This is a changing scene, with improvements in working conditions for some jazz musicians and advances in prevention and treatment of viral hepatitis.

Another risk factor for an untimely death in saxophonists and other woodwind instrument players is the technique of circular breathing. This is a breathing technique in which the artists inhales trough the nose while simultaneously inflating the cheeks and neck with air in order to produce seamless air streams.

Why is this dangerous?

Raised pressure in the neck region can increase mortality either by reducing blood supply to the brain (cerebrovascular ischaemia) or venous stasis (thromboembolism).

The researcher bringing this up used biographical information and found saxophone players but also brass and woodwind instrument players at increased risk of death than other musicians. Again this is correlation not causation. You can read the article here: Unsafe sax: cohort study of the impact of too much sax on the mortality of famous jazz musicians.
On the photograph above you can see Tom Beek (on twitter), a famous Dutch saxophone player who told me he didn’t recognize this technique of circular breathing although this pictures from his latest album suggests otherwise.

Instruments of musicians can also provoke skin disorders. They can provoke a variety of allergic contact sensitizations due to e.g. nickel and exotic woods. The clinical presentation and localization are usually specific for the instrument used: fiddler’s neck, cellist’s chest, guitar nipple, and flautist’s chin. For some more explanation of these skin disorders please read another summary of this meta analysis, I liked the guitar nipple:

“Guitar nipple” was described in the cases of three grammar-school girls who experienced swelling and inflammation of one nipple only. All were learning to play on full-sized guitars. Evidently, the girls were pressing the edge of the soundbox against their left or right nipples, depending on whether they played right- or left-handed. Temporarily discontinuing practice sessions and obtaining the proper size instrument was all that was needed to clear their conditions.

The whole article can be read here

From reading all this research it seems that in different articles different diseases are claimed for one and the same jazz musician. Jazz legends also had neurological problems. In a series of cases an article in Journal of Child Neurology the relationship between the neurological disorder and musicianship is explained. Biographies of eminent jazz musicians are used to discover the history of neurology, and enhance music appreciation by combining live performance with the artists’ biographies. Charles Mingus, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker and Earl Powell are discussed in this article: Neurological Problems of Jazz Legends.
Pearl, P. (2009). Neurological Problems of Jazz Legends Journal of Child Neurology, 24 (8), 1037-1042 DOI: 10.1177/0883073809332765

Kinra S, & Okasha M (1999). Unsafe sax: cohort study of the impact of too much sax on the mortality of famous jazz musicians. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 319 (7225), 1612-3 PMID: 10600961

Gambichler, T., Uzun, A., Boms, S., Altmeyer, P., & Altenmüller, E. (2008). Skin conditions in instrumental musicians: a self-reported survey Contact Dermatitis, 58 (4), 217-222 DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0536.2007.01310.x