The Comeback Tango: One Step Forward

Months ago, I tried to get back into the French horn after an embouchure lip injury. It remained an open question whether or not I would, in fact, find a way to play again that didn’t leave my lips and face with pain, tingling, or numbness.

When last I wrote here  about this, it was October, and I’d  felt a sudden “pop” in the lips which encouraged me to take another break. And I did, all the way until mid-December, when I finally visited a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic who’s treated brass musicians before. I rested. I stopped doing isometric lip exercises. Stopped playing horn. Stopped buzzing.

Mostly stopped. I kept poking and prodding the lip, worrying it, tensing my face, feeling anxious.  Would I play again?  The lip felt better, but sometimes variously numb, tingly, or strange, even from smiling, eating, or talking, and especially from doing odd things like puckering or tightening into something like an embouchure.

In mid-December I drove through the afternoon and evening to get to Cleveland, and woke up early and anxious the next morning to see the specialist. “It’s not torn,” was his conclusion. “Start slowly, play a couple minutes a couple times a day, and you’ll be back in shape in about a year,” was his advice. Beyond that though, he didn’t really know what was going on.

I left the clinic confused. Even the almost-two minutes I’d spent playing in the doctors’ office had cause my lips to tingle and sting more than they had in weeks, and I felt more discouraged than happy with the diagnosis I’d received.

Over the next three weeks, I tried to play a few times a day, just a  minute or two at a time. It became clear pretty quickly that this method wasn’t working. Once again, as in the comeback tango, I took two steps back for each step forward. The lip swelled up each time I played, and no amount of ice, moist heat, or ibuprofen before or after I played seemed to make a difference.

In frustration, I called David Schulman in Baltimore, the physical therapist third of the Baltimore-based group  Lip Service: Rehabilitation for the Injured Embouchure.  He called me back, and after I described my symptoms and history, suggested the lip might have a small tear or pulled muscle and that I should take another month off to let the tissue heal.  Dr. Craig Vander Kolk, a plastic surgeon from the   same “Lip Service” group, also called me. He asked me to send him pictures of my lips resting, puckered, and buzzing. Although he couldn’t offer real medical advice based on an email and some pictures, he suggested that it may be a pulled muscle or micro-tear, but not a complete tear. If  a micro-tear, the pain I was feeling might be coming from a scar that had adhered to a nerve, with rehab needed to smooth out the scar and strengthen the embouchure and muscle.

I also called the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which claimed to have a performing arts division. They hadn’t called me back in the fall, but now I tried again, got in touch, and made an appointment to see a doctor and a physical therapist specializing in jaw issues, in mid-January.  

Until then, I rested the lip. I still didn’t believe I’d ever really play again without pain.

Thus it was with great surprise that I went to the RIC this past January and, for the first time in months, felt a small glimmer of hope.

That first appointment was four months ago now. I’ve waited to post this, but I can finally play without pain, tingling, numbness, swelling, or a whole host of other issues. I can only play for about five minutes before my lip becomes too tired, but after so many  unhappy moments, even these few minutes are more than I thought I’d get back. I’ll take it.

How I’ve gotten through these last hurdles of my second try at being a comeback player, though, will be the subject for another post. Stay tuned!

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