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Guitar Strings and Joint Pain:
Musician Chris Kirby Changes His Style

Photo of Chris Kirby by Matt Reynolds

Photo of Chris Kirby by Matt Reynolds

I became aware of Chris Kirby a few months ago while browsing iTunes by searching “arthritis.” Low and behold, I stumbled across Chris’ “Arthritis Song” from his album “Chris Kirby on Rum & Religion.” I was immediately captivated after only sampling the 30 second preview. I promptly purchased the song and chills ran through my spine the first time I listened to the entire piece. Chris so eloquently and poetically expressed things I have felt about my arthritis, especially when I was first diagnosed 11 years ago.

Feeling like I had discovered something really special that I couldn’t wait to share with my arthritis friends, I immediately googled Chris and sent him a note, inquiring if he struggled with arthritis and if he would do an interview for my blog. Lucky for us, he said yes! The internet is an amazing thing!

It took me a ridiculously long time to write up this post. It was extremely important to me that I do musician Chris Kirby justice. He is a talented man, who shared details of his struggle with arthritis via his tune “Arthritis Song” and also with me via email. Today, I am grateful to be able to share his thoughts and introduce you to his music.

To read the lyrics of “Arthritis Song,” click here. A link to listen to the song appears at the end of the post. Following is my Q&A with Chris Kirby.

Q: What symptoms were you having that led you to see a doctor?
A: One night at a gig, I blew out my hands playing guitar. I was trying out heavier strings. My hands just got very stiff all of a sudden and for a while afterwards I found it difficult to play. Then the tension seemed to spread to my wrists. I found my fingers going cold and numb often. I figured after a while of resting it would go away, but it didn’t, so I went to the doctor with this “chronic tension” mystery.

Q: When you were initially diagnosed with arthritis, what were some of the thoughts/fears/questions that ran through your mind?
A: When my “Rheumatic Factor” came up positive, I thought – “Arthritis??? Will I be able to keep playing music? Is this as far as I get to go?” It was a lot to digest. I immediately started adapting my playing style to a more relaxed method. I had to get the “virtuoso” idea out of my head and focus on accompanying/complimenting my voice instead.

Q: Where do you seek/find support for what you are going through, esp. around the time you were seeing doctors for your symptoms?

A: I have found it great to talk to other musicians who have faced similar challenges. In fact, a friend of mine and producer who I had worked with in the past had a scare with his wrists at the same time I started to have trouble. We talked about our situations and what we were doing to mitigate the pain and discomfort. Everyone has different stories, but it’s generally easy to find a common element and pick up new tips on how to deal with your own issues of chronic pain, tension, etc.

Q: Do your symptoms limit you from doing anything in life?
A: I do find it limiting at times. I find I don’t have nearly as strong of a grip as I used to. I’m not exactly at the point where I need help opening a pickle jar, but let’s just say I wouldn’t challenge anyone to a game of mercy!!! I am also quite sensitive to temperature and humidity. I find I’m generally cold in my hands and feet. I remember one day I was outside trying to repair my fence, and my hands swelled up and felt so cold that holding the hammer was nearly impossible! I guess it has something to do with poor circulation caused by muscle tension.

Q: What are you finding that helps ease your chronic pain? Acupuncture, exercise, medicine, diet?
A: Over the 4 or 5 years since this started, I’ve spent a lot of money on massage therapy, alternative (homeopathic) remedies, and mechanical treatments like arm splints and retainers (I’m a jaw clencher). None of which really did the trick. These days I find a lot of relief in acupuncture, but it’s not permanent. It’s a constant maintenance kind of thing.

I do find certain diet elements help. For instance, high red meat intake is BAD. I try to stay clear of it, aside from the occasional steak – I like it rare, and eat it rarely!!! I find I feel my best when I’m eating lots of seafood (tuna is great) and lots of fruits and green veggies. I find avoiding bread helpful too.

Chris Kirby

Q: What helps you cope with chronic pain on a daily basis?
A: Stretching is important to me. I sit in front of a computer all day so I’m using my hands for a lot of repetitive motion stuff (most notably mouse operation). If I don’t take frequent timeouts to stretch I find I get very tense and have a lot of pain. It is also important to pay attention to your posture and breathing. I take the approach that it’s all about blood flow, and breathing and posture are crucial ingredients to good circulation that are most easily and commonly forgotten about! I’m no doctor, and could be way off-base here, but I find focussing on these two things helps me.

Q: Tell me about the writing of “Arthritis Song.” For instance, is it something you worked at over time, or did you complete it in one sitting? Was it cathartic to put your thoughts surrounding the diagnosis to music? What was your process like for this particular song?
A: That song started out with a differnt title and completely different subject matter. I think it might have been a bittersweet ballad of some sort. But I remember singing “don’t quit me so easily” and being frustrated with the discomfort in my hands. I was instantly reminded of my fear that I may be en route to losing the full use of my hands. So there was my inspiration. I instantly scrapped what I had written (except the “don’t quit me” part) and started over. Within ten minutes or so that song just wrote itself. That song summed up everything – even the way I played it demonstrated my new, adaptive playing style.

No matter how much you don’t want to talk about a problem you have it always feels a little better after you unload your thoughts. In that same vein, I felt a little lighter after writing that piece, and the pain gets easier to live with every time I perform it.

Q: What has been the response to this song? Do you play it at shows?
A: I shelved this song for a little while because I have been working on a new style – I have a new record coming out this spring. But, in recent months I have reintroduced it to my set and I am actually getting requests for it these days. I have had numerous audience members buy copies of my current record based on hearing that song alone, usually because the song relates to a similar problem that they or a family member is going through. The song has gotten national radio play, and most reviews of the record highlight it as a stand-out track. I find it comforting to know that people recognize me as a songwriter thanks to that tune, since the song itself illustrates the necessity behind my change of focus from guitar-slinging to song-crafting. It’s kind of the silver lining. And I have learned that seeing the silver lining is the most important part of being well in this life.

###

In my mind, there are two significant things that I want to point out about the “Arthritis Song.” #1 is obvious: It’s a beautiful song that is immediately relatable. #2: Chris didn’t try to make the song more universal by giving it a title that didn’t include the word “arthritis”. As soon as I finished writing that sentence, I realized the irony of that statement. Arthritis is universal!

We all know it’s a disease that everyone has heard of, but few truly comprehend. Even for those of us dealing with it on a daily basis, it can be infinitely confounding. Arthritis is definitely not a “glamourous” disease that attracts celebrity spokespeople or large public relations budgets, yet the facts remain that 46 million American adults have doctor-diagnosed arthritis.

Thank you, Chris, for writing a song about your struggle with chronic pain and for sharing your thoughts with me. I wish you well in your future endeavors!

Listen to “Arthritis Song”

Find out more about Chris Kirby via his MySpace page, and listen to more of his tunes.

Chris’ music is available on iTunes and CDBaby.

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  1. Patty’s avatar

    Listening to your Arthritis song, this is the first time I’ve felt unalone in this sense of robbery I’ve been experiencing. I’m a musician/guitarist with erosive ostseoarthritis. This isn’t all of who I am but it surely feels like it sometimes, and I grieve. Thanks for opening up that for me to look at more closely. You provide inspiration for me.

  2. Cortaflex’s avatar

    I suffer terribly with arthritis in my hands but as soon as I stopped eating red meat it made a huge difference. I still eat fish and I can’t resist bacon (who can!) but I’m sure it is because I’m no longer eating the fats in the meat that has helped me.

  3. Sara’s avatar

    this is so great!!! Thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. RA Guy’s avatar

    What a GREAT find, thank you so much for sharing!

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