Help for wrist/tendon pain when playing guitar
November 17, 2018 9:03 PM   Subscribe

I play piano, and am trying to learn guitar. When playing even for a few minutes, I have wrist and tendon pain in my left (fretting) hand. What should I do?

Other clues/notes:
  • I've been a desk jockey for 20 years, but minimize the impact of typing and mousing by using a split keyboard and a trackball.
  • I exercise regularly, and feel like my grip, though strong, (pull ups, swinging on bars) no longer has the endurance it had previously.
  • I've looked at this guy, and his main advice is to ice your tendons every day.
  • I don't have the issue of sore fingers or tired hands that some beginners have - it's pain running along my tendons.
  • I also have trouble getting my left hand in to the proper position for fretting - specifically placement of the thumb on the back of the neck. I have trouble keeping the thumb flat.
So what should I do - see a PT who specializes in this issue? Ice it? Work on flexibility? I'm not looking to be an elite musician who practices 4 hours/day, but 1 hour/day without pain would be nice.
posted by 4midori to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My left had always aches after periods of not playing. I think you just need to work up your strength.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:07 PM on November 17, 2018

How are you holding the guitar when you play? You might be holding it with a "broken" wrist which is an issue for many musicians. That's how musicians get tendonitis when they hold their instruments with their wrists bent back instead of straight. I've studied cello and piano and my teachers stressed having my wrists straight or slightly bent forward. If you're teaching yourself guitar, then you might not realize just how much of an impact your wrist positioning matters.

Hold out your left arm. Use your right hand to feel the tendons on your left arm. Keep your left arm straight and wiggle your fingers. Now bend your hand back and wiggle your fingers again. You should be able to feel just how much MORE your tendons are being worked when your hand is being bend backwards. That's why musicians can develop tendonitis.
posted by acidnova at 9:12 PM on November 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

Lighter-gauge strings, and drop your wrist if you're grabbing the neck like a fist, just like you lift your wrists when playing the piano (or typing).
posted by rhizome at 9:12 PM on November 17, 2018

I get tendinitis if I play “properly” with my thumb on the back of the neck, so I wrap my thumb around, which keeps my wrist in a more natural and less strained position. As a bonus, this lets you either mute the lower strings when appropriate, or fret bass notes (e.g., throwing in an F# on the 6th string when playing a D chord).

The “folk rock” hand position on this post has a picture of what I’m talking about.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 10:16 PM on November 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Easier said than done, I know, but remember to keep your arm, wrist, and hand loose as much as possible. After fretting for a few seconds, loosen up, then fret again. Build in the time to take breaks.

What kind of guitar and style are you playing? Is it an acoustic or electric guitar?

Some other things that may help, if not already covered:

- Even if you're not playing classical music, I really recommend looking at classical guitar technique, notably posture and placement of your head, shoulders, arms in relation to the guitar and the rest of your body. Definitely also look at the link in Blue Jello Elf's comment above about the folk rock hand.

I used to have RSI/carpal tunnel-based pain in both my hands, and managed playing with many many breaks. Back then, I had a classical guitar teacher who could demonstrate proper technique and also signal to me if I started slouching or had a death grip on my fretting (also left) hand. Is there a local/university classical guitar instructor you could contact about this? Definitely mention the left hand placement/thumb issue. See if you could visit them for at least one session, so they can work with you to figure out a method that will help with the pain, or even recommend a physician or PT who could help.

- A good guitar setup. If you notice it's a lot easier to push down on the strings at the 1st/2nd frets, vs, say the 6th fret, then definitely have the guitar checked out, setup-wise.

- Agreeing on using light gauge strings. If using nylon strings -- avoid high tension. I'd try "normal" tension to start, maybe light.

- Sit down to play. The guitar should be supported well, weight- and balance-wise. If a strap will help, you can certainly try it for support while you're in the chair.

- The angle of the guitar neck is important too -- do you feel like you have to keep lifting the neck up, or hold it in place at a certain angle? All you want to do with your left hand is to fret, and let the rest of your body support the guitar itself as much as possible. This is one of the reasons classical guitar players use a little footstool to elevate the leg on the same side as the fretting hand -- to help with the angle.

- What is the width of the fingerboard at the nut? If it is a thin neck, it will make fretting more difficult and possibly easier to get cramped fingers if you are playing fingerstyle / classical, especially if you have large hands. A nut width of 1 3/4" is standard for fingerstyle.

- If it's a heavy guitar, or with a narrow fingerboard, I'd ask friends if you can try their guitars, or try going to an instrument store that offers a lot of different guitar types and sizes, and see if you can find one that is better suited for *you* and for the style of music you want to play.

There's this prior AskMe: Can I learn to play guitar with carpal tunnel? -- even though you don't have carpal tunnel, some of the advice may be helpful (especially since you mentioned the trackball and split keyboard -- using the mouse and typing are what caused my RSI); I added some comments in there at the time too. (Note: the asker in that question is left-handed.)

Good luck!
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 1:39 AM on November 18, 2018

What really worked for me was strengthening my *shoulders*. I started swimming and building up my shoulder muscles made the carpal tunnel syndrome go away. The point is that your shoulders take some of the muscle stress off your elbows which, in turn, takes some of the muscle stress off your wrists. YMMV.
posted by bendy at 2:15 AM on November 18, 2018

Ice. Lots of ice.
posted by Chitownfats at 4:17 AM on November 18, 2018

It might be useful to take one lesson from a reputable guitar teacher, who could take a look at how your are holding your hand and give you advice.
posted by pangolin party at 6:35 AM on November 18, 2018

I have strengthened my wrist for guitar playing by wrapping a rubber band around all of my finger tips, and opening my fingers - you can feel your tendons working all the way up your forearm. You can also work individual fingers by putting the rubber band on one finger and your thumb.
posted by entropone at 9:08 AM on November 18, 2018

The “folk rock” hand position on this post has a picture of what I’m talking about.

Just to note before you go too far down that path that the "E-String Thumbhook" style requires larger hands, particularly a long thumb. Check out Jimi Hendrix's or Pete Townshend's left hands and try to get the same positions on a Strat that they do. I can't! Heck, I think Jimi was able to reliably thumb the A string too.
posted by rhizome at 10:01 AM on November 18, 2018

I don't know about the guitar, but Adam Neely does, as you can see here.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:34 AM on November 18, 2018

Thank you, everyone. I will dig in.
posted by 4midori at 8:17 PM on November 20, 2018

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