Hand Health: Coping with Carpal Tunnel and Arthritis as a guitarist

Posted on by Jay Hale


As a guitarist, your hands are your life. Any discomfort or injury can seriously hinder if not impede one’s ability to play to the best of your capabilities. It kind of goes without saying that punching things is generally a bad idea, try to avoid that if at all possible. But if you have any sort of pain or stiffness issue it’s not only a physical hindrance, it’s psychological too –  you’re hesitant to play that expansive lick that even though it would be perfect, you know it’s going to hurt so bad you may not pull it off correctly.

Some guitarists to supplement their non-gigging income take data entry jobs or other jobs that increase the chance of repetitive-strain injuries to the the hand that can, over time, result in lifelong maladies like carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis, which can rob even the best guitarist of the ability to execute even the most mundane licks without pain and discomfort. Some cases of carpal can be so painful it requires surgery, but most guitarists try to find workarounds to allow them to continue to play at acceptable levels. This article will outline a few steps I’ve found that you too can take to minimize discomfort and continue to play relatively pain-free.

Stretch ’em out..

My non-musical job (as a data analyst) requires me to sit at a computer and enter data for operational databases, spreadsheets and reporting all day, which can play havoc on one’s hands. Cramping and muscle strain is the norm, but the work has to be done, and it certainly beats work that requires heavy lifting, or standing all day. However, sometimes after work it takes a good deal of time for my hands to be able to get out of typing claw-mode and return to a more relaxed, limber, normal state for playing.

I find one of the best things one can do, and one that is often overlooked by guitarists is to warm up – extensively. Once upon a time I could play silly shred licks with minimal warm-up, but now it’s not as much fun. Even the best athletes employ warm-up routines, and guitarists shouldn’t think themselves any different. Allow yourself a good 15-30 minutes of warm-up time before attempting any weird stretches or speedy runs, you’ll get a lot fewer cramps, I find.

Find a warm-up routine that works, and stick with it. I personally find in addition to some stretching, a session of running basic major and minor scales and patterns up and down the neck (say major and minor scales from the “G” on the 3rd fret low-E string to the octave at the 15th fret and back) limbers the fingers sufficiently enough to get through a recording session of gig. I appreciate a noticeable difference in dexterity (and overall comfort level) when I do this as opposed to when I skip it.

Just sayin’….

As for medical or pharmaceutical assistance, anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen can reduce pain and swelling in the knuckles, and for serious pain, or for example, when you have a pain issue but have a gig or a session to get through, there are topical remedies like a cream I’m prescribed called Ketogabalido (though I’d bet there are over-the-counter equivalents); it’s quite helpful but it may work a little too well. I would strongly recommend applying such cream with a cotton swab or Q-tip if you’d like to be able to feel the pick between your thumb and index finger at the gig later! Also avoid getting it on your fingertips if you’d like to feel the strings under your fingers, too. But applied it to an achy knuckle before a gig or session is very helpful.

Here’s another trick I discovered quite by accident – and some tough guys may scoff at it, but believe me it works: As a boxing fan, I was checking out an episode of HBO’s 24/7 series one night and noticed Floyd Mayweather Jr. getting a parrafin wax hand massage treatment as part of his pre-fight training and physical therapy regimen. I was curious, but wasn’t the massage type of guy. As luck would have it, as part of a health fair at my office one day they were offering the exact same treatment, free of charge – I had no excuse not to try it.  It was amazing, as if it took years off my hands. I was surprised to find upon returning home and picking up my guitar, it felt as though I’d already warmed up for the usual amount if not longer, and flexibility was greatly improved. I was shocked, but I’ll be having them again, that much is certain.

Remember, I’m not a doctor and can only tell you what works for me. But if you look at your hands as the tools of an athlete of sorts, you can see the importance of warmups particularly, and some sort of maintenance/health regimen to ensure the tools you need to play your instrument function well for years to come, hopefully the rest of your life. What do you do to keep your hands in shape?

Written on November 14, 2012, by Jay Hale

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