Playing with Pain


I’m lucky — I’ve never suffered from any playing-related pain. (I mean, other than expected stuff, like spurting blood all over a guitar when you bash it a little too hard, or picking up a soldering iron by the wrong end.) But I’ve been blissfully untouched by carpal tunnel syndrome, numbness, arthritis, etc.

Until recently.

A few months ago, my left thumb joint started aching. It didn’t directly affect my playing — all those clams in my videos happened on their own! But it scared the crap out of me.

My doctor suggested it might be non-degenerative arthritis.

Arthritis?” I squawked. “But I’m only . . . oh, yeah, probably arthritis.”

Which it may well be. But it also occurred to me that I had been indulging in a new behavior for the last year or two, and wondered whether it might be contributing to the problem. See, I’m almost as addicted to my iPad as I am to flatwound strings. I’ve embraced the post-paper lifestyle, and I use the iPad for most of my reading and much of my correspondence. I keep it on my workbench while I solder, use it as a remote in the studio, watch movies while working out, and most important, use it to read comic books in the bathtub. I usually support it with my left hand, with the modest but constant 1.44 lb. weight centered right where I was hurting. I migrated to a .68 lb. iPad Mini a few months ago. Lo and behold, the pain has receded — for now, anyway.

That's got to hurt!

That’s got to hurt!

But it makes me realize how much I take for granted the simple act of pain-free playing. Then I think of all the players who have either been derailed by playing-related pain, or who persevere despite it. And that’s not even taking into account injury-related pain. (Hello, Django!)

So has guitar playing ever become a pain for you? (No, working with singers doesn’t count.) Were you able to overcome it by modifying your technique, or through therapy? Any words of wisdom to share?

36 comments to Playing with Pain

  • Scott

    Back when I was in college I played in a punk rock band deploying the right hand palm mute technique while picking and strumming staccato which wasn’t so bad but combined with taking notes all day in class it added up to some serious right wrist pain. I had some relief during summer semester breaks but it would come back in the fall semester. I eventually overcame it when the band dissolved and I resorted to more subtle picking and strumming as well as graduating from college. It was the accumulation of both of these that caused what is now known as repetitive stress injury. On another note I just got my first iPad a couple weeks ago and started experiencing the same crampy feeling below my left thumb. I had to change up my habit of holding this iOS marvel in that manner. Cheers

  • NotSoFast

    I had a pain last week in my right thumb. Thought it might be from finger picking but then realized I’d been playing a dumb iPhone game and scrolling with that thumb. Stopped for a day and the thumb is fine.

    So… try avoiding using it with the pad for a while.

  • Litos

    Well, this surely hit home with me… Hope I don’t come across as melodramatic, but that you guys get this as a cautionary tale of sorts.

    I used to play bass and double bass in several bands at the same time. I also was an illustrator, so you can tell there was a lot on stress on my wrists and elbows.

    It all started with a vague numbness in the tips of my fingers, which I supposed to be the weight of the bass pinching a nerve in my shoulder, or even cutting blood circulation to the rest of the arm. That’s when I started my quest for the perfect strap: padded, wider than usual, double straps… You name it, I tried it. And it only got worse and worse, to the point where I couldn’t play for more than half an hour. But nooo, I wouldn’t go to the doctor!!

    At a certain time, it was hard to open a door with both hands, and I got to a doctor and a chiropractor. I was diagnosed with tendinitis in both wrists and elbows. Funnily enough, the pain wasn’t that bad. It was there, sure, but definitely not the worst any normal person’s been through. What was REALLY painful was the physical therapy. I’ll spare you the nasty bits, but I did cry in front of the chiropractor. Baaad!!

    Of course, drawing being my source of income, I had to make a hard choice. I sold all my bass gear and got an acoustic guitar for (very) gentle noodling. I got into fingerpicking, where my bass technique definitely helped and still wasn’t that tiresome.

    Right now, I wouldn’t get near a bass if you paid me, but guitar playing is definitely a gentler art, and one that now un-cramps me after drawing for hours on end. I haven’t had a problem for three- four years, though I get the odd cramp at times.

    Sooo… Do look after your hands, guys. If you feel funny, stop. If the strings feel like a telephone wires, tune down, or change ’em (even if you have to -gasp- go back to roundwounds!). And if you happen to have to drop your main instrument… Well, that’s harsh, but there’s always another piece of wood you can bang, albeit maybe a bit more gently than before.

  • Litos

    Boy, was that long… Sorry!!

    • joe

      It’s a great story. And it made me think of how, yeah, certain instruments are more innately hazardous than others. Whether it’s the cruel way you have to splay your fingers on upright bass, or the tinnitus many rockers develop. But you know what’s really bad? Ever seen an old conga player’s hands?

      (That’s master conguero Francisco Aguabella, who passed away in 2010.)

      • Litos

        Wow, those hands hurt just from looking! Come to think of it, many instruments weren’t really designed with comfort in mind. Take a trumpet player’s hypermuscular lips and saggy cheeks, or drummers and their bad backs.

  • If you do any serious amount of computer time (and who doesn’t), look up the Evoluent Vertical Mouse. It saved my right hand from all sorts of aches and pains many years ago, that never came back. A nice wristpad also helped.

    Yes, it’s a bit awkward to use for the first day or so, but totally worth it. One day I thought mine was malfunctioning and I ordered a backup on the spot! That’s how good/important it is.

    • Litos

      Have you ever tried a trackball, such as the one Logitech makes? They’re very precise and tough as nails: mine looks ugly as sin after… 15 years under the sun and sweaty palms of yours truly, but still going strong. And because you don’t move it, it helps keep the tennis elbow away!

      • mwseniff

        I switched to a trackball in the early 90’s on my Amiga after having hand problems it made a big difference. I also use a stylus with my iPad made by Nataal and it helps too.

  • About ten years ago I injured my shoulder at the beginning of a three month tour (I bashed and gashed it straightening in a hotel shower and encountering a huge and very sturdy soap dish made out of towel-rack materials. I mean I left a big old chunk of me behind there. Days after the unpleasantness I started noticing increased stiffness and discomfort in my left arm, with pain moving to different locations, shoulder, elbow wrist, then everything. I had to stare at my fingers and consciously will them to move to their next location. I started play really economically let me tell you.
    Now, I had over two months of one-nighters ahead of me, so I was shit-scared. So I started a regimen of extreme hydration and loads of ginger (great natural anti-inflamatory), loads of stretching and self-massage using a Thera-cane (a plastic cane with a hook, absolute God-send…). In a couple of weeks the worst had past, but I started noticing that if I did my bad habit of arching my shoulders when I’m gettin’ all excited, (which was a lot because I was the lead guitarist of a high energy blues act) that the pain and stiffness would return.
    I still have to fight that habit to stay healthy, but hell, I just got home from doing eleven gigs (three one-hour sets per and a couple of matinees) in nine days with about thirty hours of driving involved and I’m gigging three more times this week and everything seems to be working fine. I literally got blisters on my thumb and bruising on my cuticles, though. But thats just enthusiasm.

  • Oinkus

    Waay back in about 1976 or so I put my right hand through a window and did some real damage to tendons in my wrist. Was interesting because I got to watch the surgery while they pulled tendons and made my fingers move. Sewed all up they put a half cast on it and told me my hand would never be the same. Best guess was it would be mostly useless. I had been playing french horn since the 5th grade and migrated to trumpet for high school jazz band.Always had keys in my house played those since I was very small(self taught) and there was a guitar in the house they got out of the Sears catalog in the 60’s for my brother.I could play the basic chords (G,C,D A Em) and a picking thing called uh Zo? by Peter Paul and Mary.To make a long story longer I started playing Guitar all day every day and squeezing tennis balls. Moved on to using an iron bar with a string to raise and lower a weight(self rehab Moms a nurse she told me what to do and why)I got back 99% of the usage of my hand and started playing in a large group of hopeful musicians that jammed at every party or event in the area(enough for 7 or 8 bands).Did kitchen work and construction all my life ,very hard on the hands both jobs. Early 90s came down with Arthritis in both hands , I also have tendinitis in my right shoulder blade an adhesion in my right shoulder socket. Last year I popped something in my left elbow that makes my hand numb around my fingers.All I can say is That is Life, pain is just electrical impulses that bounce around inside your brain neurons.A crippling event started me down the path to play guitar and 35 some years later I still attempt to do it whenever I can.It is also a pretty crippling event for the audience so I guess what comes around,goes around.Life is good, do the best you can with what you have,make an effort.Everything else is just not important.

  • smgear

    basic reiteration of much of the above. I’ve got pretty terrible carpal tunnel. Constant stretching throughout the day mitigates the pain a little, but I think it’s beyond the point of resolving itself on its own (and 80 hours a week at the computer doesn’t help). It doesn’t affect my guitar too much because my fingerstyle approach is pretty stress free. It definitely affects my bowing on violin though. When I was younger and playing mostly violin, my left hand fingers would start going numb on me after an hour or two. But I think that was largely because i’m a lanky 6’7″. So stretching and rubbing the fingers between tunes became standard practice.

    On the gig-story front, I once broke my ankle on the second week of an 8 week van tour…. so that was a good memory. I broke/sprained wrists and elbows a few times when I was a kid (usually my right), so my music teachers had me learn some of the left hand piano works and indulged me by teaching me jazz chording – two things which both helped me out in the long run. .

  • Thecoslar

    I have muscle damage in my right hand. Limits the amount of stretchy finger work and rapid runs I can do. I over compensate with my right hand; trying to make up for it with different picking techniques. Even stil, my injury has mostly relegated me to rhythm guitar.

  • mwseniff

    I have found that doing a variety of things with my hands is the best medicine for me. I’ve always done a lot of repair work involving close work but try to limit it to short sessions. I also try to put down my guitar after a couple of hours and do something else with my hands. But one thing I did do was see a doctor about it the first time I experienced any problems to make sure it wasn’t arthritis of the hands ( I do have degenerative arthritis in my lower back that slowly makes my back pain worse). Anyway the doctor recommended that I vary my manual tasks and limit any individual task to a couple hours at most. Finally a good diet seems to help as well, I became an ovo-lacto vegetarian 20 plus years ago (tho’ I was never a big meat eater). I use a dietary supplement ensure good nutrition as well.

  • mwseniff

    Joe you need to invent a Rube Goldberg-esque device to hold you iPad. I am thinking something that folds out of a stove pipe hat to hold your iPad at the proper level. To do it right you would need it to be powered by squirrels in a wheel or mice chasing a hunk of cheese to power the folding levers. That would solve all the weight hurting your hands but might give you a stiff neck.

  • mwseniff

    Jerry Garcia took up playing pedal steel in the late 60’s early 70’s and played some great stuff with the New Riders,,Jefferson Starship and on Dead albums. However he started having hand problems from the slide and the angles of his hands in general. He gave it up eventually to save his hands and went back to guitar where he also played great slide. It was a shame because his pedal steel playing was very inventive and beautiful.

  • I’ve also been remarkably pain free over 40+ years of playing. I attribute a lot of it to never being able to play very fast…I’m not calling on my hands to do anything too intense:) ‘course if I could play fast I would, but that’s another story. But I’m also a firm believer in warming up. I always sit and play gentle stretchy chord voicings for 15 minutes or so before I play any single note stuff, bending etc. I think it helps.

  • I play guitar in a pattern where I will play for an exclusive period of time and then have long periods where I just play as a hobbyist. Normally when just playing along to tracks and practicing I’m fine. But when I start playing with a band/other ppl/musicians I will normally have some pain around my wrist (due to the fact I’m standing rather than sitting – and guitar height differs), but recently I noticed that the joints in my forth finger is also aching… Never had this before 🙁

  • I’ve been playing guitar and bass since about 1969 (I’m 55). I mostly play bass in bands. Only in the past year or two I have developed pain in my right hand plucking fingers due to plucking the strings too hard. I do that because I like the way it sounds, but had to get myself to play softer. I also sometimes press my left hand fingers onto the strings too hard, which causes my left hand index finger tip to go numb.

    The real painful moment though was falling one night while walking down a dark street back in January. I landed on both hands, but mostly my right. Besides gouging up my palms, I ended up bending my index finger in some unnatural position. The first and second joints must have bent sideways, and trying to do anything with my hand, from opening doors, to pulling the wallet out of my back pocket was very painful and nearly impossible. Now, three months later I still have a fair amount of discomfort in that hand, and especially that finger. For a while I had to play bass with a pick, which luckily I’m very good at, but even that hurt. The pain also affects my thumb so holding a pick was uncomfortable.

    Slowly it’s getting better, but it sure was a scare for a while. Being self employed I do not have medial insurance, so having it looked at was not an option at this time. If it continued I would have had to however.

  • AL

    No pun intended but YES..this strikes a chord with me. I am developing a form of age related arthritis in both hands. The joints at the end of my fingers has started to develop small nodules in the bone and playing at times is painful. I have noticed it is more of an issue in my right hand and leaves my fingering hand(left) to less of a problem.

    I do use finger stretching before any real playing, for serious stuff I try to keep my hands warm in hot water but this softens the skin on my fingertips a little. The hot water increases the flexibility. I am trying a topical stimulant like Capsaicin (for us older guys..its like Ben-Gay)

    I am turning 60 and with some of the disappointments in my life, this is one that hits me a bit more because no matter what gets taken from me as I get older, being able to play my guitars has carried me thru so many F’ed up events whether it was a few notes or a few hours. I was kinda looking forward to keeping those skills.

  • Digital Larry

    Hoo boy, I recently developed an occasional popping pain in my left wrist that has nothing to do with playing, because I haven’t been playing very much. Fortunately I already play ukulele and mandolin which work better than guitar when you’re sitting in a wheelchair!

  • Haggai

    Hey Joe, I’m suffering degenerative arthritis which is gradually getting worse as I get older. Some days I can play fine, others my left hand and knees swell up like balloons. In response I’m learning to play slide on my right hand and seeking alternate ways of dealing with it when the situation comes up. I’m only 24.

    • joe

      Hey Haggai — man, sorry to hear about that. A lot of folks aren’t aware that young people can battle arthritis too.

      Now, let me get this straight: You’re right-handed, but learning to play slide with your left? That’s a big adjustment, but no reason you can’t make it work.

      I don’t know whether it’s any consolation, but there are many stories of guitarists who have had to modify their technique to deal with injury or disability, and in some cases, having to approach the instrument in a new way can became a springboard for a bold new style. I hope you come up with something awesome. Let us know how things go!

  • Bryan

    Well, there was the time when I went to an outdoor party and this amazing woman was standing by a table of raw oysters, so I went up and casually shucked my first oyster ever (I’ve always been very protective of my hands and fingers, but I was blinded by desire – or something) and started chatting with her – no problem, it was easy to open and delicious. The very next one I put the oyster knife right in the middle of my left hand – pushed the skin out on the back but didn’t go all the way through. Missed all the tendons somehow – or maybe the curved tip just pushed them aside. Hurt like hell, went to the ER & begged for meds since I had to play that night – and the next night and the next night. Wouldn’t give me a thing.
    Drank more beer and played lots more slide than usual and it healed up just fine – luckily, since the knife was covered in oyster stuff. Then there was the time I slipped and fell on some ice and cut my right hand without realizing it since it was so cold. I walked back into where a band was playing and a friend handed me his new-to-him Tele in mid-song. I started playing, cold hands and all and then noticed blood all over the pickguard – oops.

    My real problem now – 30 years later – is arthritis in the first joint of my left index finger (and a few other non-guitar affecting places). It’s ached on and off for several years when I’m playing but on a gig just last Saturday, it was much more painful than ever before, especially doing double stop slides and such. Not sure what I’m going to do about it although I’m sure it’ll make stop doing some things I do a lot. ‘Springboard to a bold new style’ sounds good, too. But I remember seeing Les Paul in about 2000 and how he only played about 1/2 the time (and told dirty jokes the rest of the time) because of his arthritis. Like Haggi above, I’m seriously thinking that it’s time to buckle down to learn how to play slide really well instead of just faking it (although I can’t imagine switching hands like he says he’s doing – wow).

  • Nick

    Well..Im 48,,I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2005. I survived a stroke in 2003. today the 6th just happens to be My 10 year anniversarry. But the real topic id like to interject is “Neuropathy”. It is a disease within the disease of diabetes…It is nerve damage that has stricken several areas of My body. it is mostly surface numbness. it has stricken My left pinky and ring fingers pretty good,and apparently seems to be getting worse…As formentioned…I also thought about going “Lefty”…but My left arm/hand isnt very stable eiher from a moving accident where I literally shredded the tendon and bicep in My left arm,because some asshole who was high couldnt hold up theyre end of the cabinet we were moving…I just wonder if anyone out there is dealing with anything similar…Any thoughts/suggestions are appreciated,,My left pinky and ring fingers have been throbbing lately and Id like to avoid a nerve conduction test if I could (theyre effin painful)…thanks…

    • smgear

      sorry to hear Nick. My dad has neuropathy (and no diabetes or ‘typical’ causes). I’ve read a lot about it trying to find suggestions, but there doesn’t seem to be much by way of treatment. I think accupuncture might provide some slight and short term improvements, but I wish there was some more research being done on it.

  • This article is bad luck – my right hand has been developing what I assume arthritis must feel like in the index and middle fingers (the go-to drivers of my fingerstyle technique). So far it hasn’t affected the playing at all, but when my kid holds my hand (with his tyke-ish death grip) it feels like the bones are turning to chalk.

  • Nick

    You know…I read these posts…and wonder why ..ok..”sports medicine” is covered by the medical profession..why not “Musicians Medicine”..I mean c’mon…I’m sure some of your are orthopedic doctor’s/surgeons out there..yeah…we may not be bread and butter victims…but dayum..we need help too 😛

  • Gary

    I wanted to read your flatwound strings column again Joe about your addiction! So i typed it in the search bar and …wait a minute i saw this column and started to read it.

    Years ago i started noticing my fingerpicking was going downhill. My index finger always wanted to curl into the palm of my hand to the point i couldn’t use it very well. Then i started noticing it affecting my hand when i even held a pick. An indescribable weird sensation that was always there.

    So it’s got to the point where i had to start gripping the pick with thumb index and middle or it always felt like it was slipping from my hands.

    I even got operated on for carpal tunnel ‘cos i thought that was affecting it. But all to no avail. I couldn’t understand what the hell was wrong with me until i read about ‘dystonia’ i read about legendary classical player Liona Boyd and everything she wrote could have been written about me. Basically it wrecked her career and she had to give up recitals and everything.

    Badi Assad had it also and she recovered to a degree although there is no cure for it actually. You see it’s not a hand problem it’s a neurological problem.

    Anyway i used to play country blues and loved the music of Rev Gary Davis, Lightnin’ Hopkins etc but i had to stop playing it as it felt so awkward.

    I practice and play as much today as ever but have to alter my technique around the problem.

    Here’s a link to the GP article about Liona and her struggle. But i warn other players that it’s pretty frightening reading about all this great players technique slipping away from her.

    • joe

      Badi’s story is so harsh — and ironic, because she’s always played like the dancer she is, with amazing poise and technical efficiency. You certainly can’t point to anything in her technique that would have presaged the problems she’s encountered. I’m just delighted that such a 6-string genius is playing again. Sorry to hear about your troubles too, Gary. I hope you find a way to work through them and keep making music.

      • Gary

        Thanks Joe. I can still play, but not with the technique i used to. It sucks but at the same time i try and look at the positive sides of it. When things like that happen it makes you look at playing guitar from a different angle. Have you ever heard of a guy called Billy McLaughlin? He is someone else who had to reinvent his whole style because of it.

        It’s not only guitarists. I’ve even heard of saxophonists getting it. It gets them in the muscles in the throat and they just can’t play.

        It’s a very strange thing.

        Hope your thumb heals quick Joe, i read it on your newest post.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




Click to upload a JPG

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.