It's not all hot air

By:

I have now been playing the bagpipes for almost 60 years. I first became interested in the medical aspects of piping at medical school and later had the opportunity to research the physiological aspects at the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine.

There is an old joke that pipers march up and down because it is harder to hit a moving target. Whilst that may, or may not, be true, there is a physiological benefit to marching in this way. The combination of hyperventilation and increased intrathoracic pressure can lead to fainting, particularly in young and inexperienced pipers. Keeping on the move facilitates return of blood to the heart by exercising the muscle pump. However, there are other occupational hazards to playing the Highland bagpipes.

Pipers can develop noise induced hearing loss - although my wife complains that I have a listening deficit, not a hearing deficit. Many years ago, I took my pipes into an anechoic chamber to measure just how noisy they were. The noise at the left ear was 112 dBA (others have measured even higher levels) which is presumably why the HSE recommends hearing protection for pipers in pipe bands. There is a school of thought that those pipers in a band who are near to the drummers, who can be even louder, are more at risk than those in the front rank.

There has been a case of a young piper suffering a pneumothorax when playing, caused by the bursting of a bulla. (Editor’s note: Having googled the terms, I have found that a pneumothorax refers to a build-up of air in the pleural space, which causes the lung on the affected side to collapse and be unable to inflate and a bulla is a blister). Other pipers, particularly those who have been immunologically compromised, have been infected by the hide bag. Such bags are traditionally seasoned or kept supple and airtight by syrup or sugar solutions or commercially available seasonings. These are ideal culture media for such “bag bugs” as cryptococcus or aspergillus, particularly if the piper is a “wet blower”. Many pipers have moved to Gore-Tex bags which removes the requirement for seasoning and reduces the risk.

One further risk is one not experienced by the author but known to Shakespeare. Shylock says in Act IV of The Merchant of Venice, “And men there are… when the bagpipe sings i’ th’ nose cannot contain their urine”.

(This article was first printed in Occupational Medicine 2016: 66(4) 291 and used here with kind permission of Oxford University Press.]

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