The Guitar Doctor Will See You Now…

As a guitar player it is all too easy to screw up parts of your body as you desperately push to become the very best that you can be.  This article will look at a few of the common conditions that can strike down a guitar player in their prime, and how they can be prevented or treated.

When I was at University I developed tendonitis in my picking hand as a result of trying to play songs that I wasn’t yet physically capable of playing.  I did absolutely everything wrong – I didn’t warm up properly, was tense whilst playing, had awful posture, and once my wrist started getting sore I continued to play through the pain, not wanting to let my bandmates down.  The only solution that would stop the pain was wearing an elasticated wrist strap, which was so tight that my hand would go numb after 20 minutes of play.  I basically gave up guitar for 2 years while my wrist healed up.

A friend of mine who was a top flight guitar player was also struck down with a similar wrist condition (tenosynovitis) that effectively stopped his guitar career in its tracks.  He was in the process of recording some instructional DVDs when it happened and it was such a crippling pain that he also had to quit his job as a web designer.  After a series of injections and surgeries he began to play again, albeit as a shadow of his former self.

Another of my friends has tinnitus in his ears as a result of too many years of playing heavy music far too loud.  Now he can only play guitar at low volumes and isn’t able to go see any of his favorite bands play live…

It’s just so important to look after your body as a guitar player because there is so much than can go wrong.  I’ve detailed the big five below, however some unmentioned guitar injuries are obviously easily avoided with just a little common sense… 😉

Guitar Injury Stabbed Death Blood Spin Fail

Tinnitus

What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a constant ringing or buzzing sound in your ears and is a result of prolonged exposure to loud music.

How To Prevent Tinnitus
Give your ears some time to recuperate in between loud sessions.  For example you may be familiar with the post-gig buzz which results in a ringing in your ears for several hours after the show is over.  Take some time out and your inner-ear structures will heal and the ringing will subside.  If you don’t take any downtime you won’t heal up and the problem could become permanent.

When you do play, defend your ears by investing in a set of custom moulded earplugs specifically made for musicians. If these are out of budget, a good set of regular earplugs are also a great option.  These won’t change the quality of the music you hear but they will reduce the decibels that reach you.  Also, whilst playing a gig you don’t need to have your amp blasting loud to get a good tone – try and rely a bit more on the PA system so that you don’t have a shrill amp screaming in your ear all night.  I remember being down at the rehearsal studio and experiencing pain in my ears as a result of the amp volume – what an idiot I was back then!

How To Treat Tinnitus
Technically there is no cure as once you’ve damaged your hearing that’s it gone for good, your ears will have lost the ability to heal themselves due to prolonged exposure to high levels of sound.  Expect to be rocking a hearing aid before long!

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful disorder caused by compression of a nerve located between the wrist and the hand.

How To Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Properly warming up before playing should be a no-brainer and will help reduce strain on your hands and wrists.  If you can get away with using a lighter string gauge the resulting reduced tension should help as well.

Always try and keep your wrist as straight as comfortably possible.  Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead uses a wrist support whilst playing to help keep his wrist straight.  If you are tensed up while playing try and relax a little as using too much pressure on the fretboard can really aggravate the wrist.  Slow things down to the point where you have no tension and slowly build up your speed.

How To Treat Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Your first port of call should be to check in with a decent chiropractor who should be able to work on your joints and nervous system in order to free up your passageways.

For more serious cases a doctor may prescribe steroidal injections and the worst case scenario would be to have your problem ligament cut!

Tendonitis

What Is Tendonitis?
Tendonitis is a painful disorder which is a result of tendons becoming inflamed in the elbow, forearm or wrist.  With guitarists it is a result of repetitive movements in day to day playing.

How  To Prevent Tendonitis
As was mentioned before, it really is important to warm up correctly before launching into a full-on eight hour guitar session!  Lifestyle also plays an important role in deciding how well your body will cope with the stresses of playing guitar.  If you take a lot of exercise and have a healthy diet your body will be much better equipped to bounce back from stressful practice sessions.  Many professional guitar players structure their days so that they will wind down from a hard jog or gym session with a solid guitar session while their blood is still pumping.

How To Treat Tendonitis
If you are experiencing tendonitis like symptoms you should employ the R.I.C.E treatment.  Rest for at least 3 weeks, apply ice to prevent secondary tissue death, compress with a bandage and try to keep it elevated to let the fluid drain.  Also make sure to go and see your doctor!

Arthritis

What Is Arthritis?
Arthritis is the wear and tear of joints – for guitarists this could be in the hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder and even the spine.  The most common case is osteoarthritis where joints get worn down through overuse and begin grinding against each other.  Nasty!

How To Prevent Arthritis
Taking inexpensive Essential Fatty Acids (Fish Oils) can help to combat imflammation.  Also, having a regular massage to promote mobility in joints can help out.

How To  Treat Arthritis
Regular exercise can help to keep up mobility as being at a lower weight will help to reduce the pressure on joints.  Your GP may be able to prescribe you anti-inflammatory painkillers, or failing that paracetamol or ibuprofen will help reduce any swelling.

In the worst case scenario you can undergo joint replacement surgery (arthroplasty).

Back Pain

What Is Back Pain?
Back pain is just that, pain in your back as a result of poor posture.  For guitarists this could be a result of wearing your guitar down at your knees, or headbanging a little too enthusiastically at gigs.

How To Prevent Back Pain
Wear your guitar at a position where your hand, shoulder, elbow, wrist and spine are relaxed.  Also, when you are sitting down to practice make sure that your chair is adequately supportive – you want to be relaxed and not hunched over your guitar.  Again, regular exercise will help strengthen your back muscles and prevent pain. Get your posture sorted in the office as well – here is a great article on workspace ergonomics from Lifehacker.

How To Treat Back Pain
Stop your headbanging routines and go see a decent chiropractor.  Once the damage is done it cannot be reversed and later on in life this will result in loss of function. In the office you can try one of these invaluable desk accessories to take the strain off your lower back. Sitting down all day is incredibly bad for you!

Sort It Out Now!

So as you can see there is plenty that can go wrong and ultimately all of these are hopefully preventable through a few key changes in your play-style and lifestyle.  Take action now and don’t leave it until it’s too late.

Further Reading

Learn more about guitar related injuries and how to prevent them with the following excellent books:

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17 replies
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  1. Keith
    Keith says:

    Thanks for this! Like most people, I’ve been using my right hand for my mouse at work, and using that as my fretting hand, my wrist was hurting by the end of the week. About 2 weeks ago, I switched to using my mouse with my left hand, and I’m already as fast as I was with 20+ years of using my right hand. I reccomend lefty guitarists to try it too.

    Reply
  2. stew
    stew says:

    Here’s some tips. Tension starts up in the shoulders and affects everything below it. Try to drop your shoulders, you’ll feel them slacken off immediately.
    Don’t play with your head down constantly looking at the frets, its a big cause of strain to the neck and creates tension.

    The wrist, as said before keep them as straight as possible. I made the mistake of playing with a bent fret hand and it weakened my grip.
    I have some finger exercises which stretch the tendons, if anyone is interested reply here.

    Reply
  3. Tracy goldstein
    Tracy goldstein says:

    Amazing how many responses this article gets but nary a response about any of the new guitars.

    Reply
  4. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    I have been playing for almost 40 years. Taught myself as a kid sitting on the edge of a bed in a very small unheated room – 8 hours plus a day if I could.
    The twist in my posture because of this is still a part of me. Low back issues love to pop up, for me on my left side since I play right handed and guess I usually sat turned to the left. Regular Yoga is my answer and getting help occaisionally from a massage therapsit or acupuncturist when it flares up.
    Starting up in a decent posture is important. But damn I still love playing guitar…!

    Reply
  5. Sunny
    Sunny says:

    What’s about a “seated guitar?” Looks not cool…I’m a Yogateacher but playing my Les Paul is not always an easy thing.I do muscle training and push ups because i love playing guitar but the price is high…most people don’t want to pay that price but playing the guitar like Jimi Hendrix without any effort…Yeah..and all this modern “computer devices” makes you sick too!!If i stay 10 minutes on my laptop i get tensions in my shoulders and dry eyes.

    Reply
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