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The University of Chicago Medicine - Comer Children's Hospital

Playing On

Holly Benjamin, MD, thinks of the young musicians she treats as athletes.

“A string player is just as susceptible to soft tissue and tendon damage as a tennis player,” said Benjamin, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital. “The hours a musician spends practicing with repetitive movements are similar to those of an elite athlete practicing his or her sport-specific techniques.” 

Claire Roesler, 19, of Western Springs, Ill., had a passion for the violin from an early age. By the time she was in middle school, she was playing in two performance groups. But shortly after a long holiday concert during her 8th grade year, Claire felt pain in her neck and shoulder. Throughout the winter, it became increasingly difficult for her to pick up her instrument, much less play it. “Even brushing my hair and laying in bed hurt,” she said.

Advice from the first three specialists she saw ranged from “stop playing the violin” to “the pain may be in her head” to “I don’t think she has a real injury.”

“I was ready to quit,” Claire said, “but my mom told me we would never give up searching for the cause of my pain.”

The Roesler family eventually found Benjamin, who performed the same shoulder and neck exam that she would on a tennis or baseball player. An MRI was done to rule out other conditions. 

Benjamin diagnosed Claire with muscle strain in her neck and shoulder impingement — soft tissue injuries caused by compression of the rotator cuff tendons in the shoulder and posture issues. But there was more. Claire had developed a condition referred to as complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) in which pain reaches severe levels out of proportion to the injury.

Benjamin prescribed pain medication and a progressive physical therapy to loosen the neck and shoulder, strengthen it and restore normal movement. Claire slowly improved and was able to tolerate intensive physical therapy. Within three months, she had recovered enough to play her violin for five minutes. Gradually, she was able increase her practice times.   

 Throughout the next four years, Claire played in her high school orchestra, attended summer music camps in the U.S. and toured cities in Europe, Peru and China with music groups. Now at Emory University in Atlanta, she performs in the college’s orchestra and in a quartet.

Although Claire loves being a musician, she has decided to pursue a career in medicine.

“I want to be a doctor because I want to be like Dr. Benjamin,” she wrote in her college essay. “She believed in me, found out what was hurting me and gave me hope. Like her, I will be a doctor who doesn’t give up.”

Running Without Pain

Claire’s sister Hayley’s feet hurt constantly and her ankles were swollen. Then 12 years old, Hayley hadn’t been able to run in years. “Walking down the block was about all she could tolerate,” said her mother, Marie Roesler. Hayley’s rigid, flat feet were the result of an abnormal connection between two bones called tarsal coalition.

While several specialists had told the family that wearing orthotics was the only option, Holly Benjamin, MD, believed a surgical approach could correct the problem. She referred Hayley to her Comer Children’s colleague, pediatric orthopaedic surgeon Christopher Sullivan, MD, MPH, an expert in muscle and skeletal disorders that affect children. After a thorough evaluation and consultation, the Roesler family decided to proceed with the recommended surgery followed by physical therapy.

“Hayley has been pain-free and active in gym class ever since,” Marie said, adding, “I am forever indebted to Dr. Benjamin and Dr. Sullivan for their dedication to healing.”