How to Avoid or Recover From Guitar Related Injuries

Covers prehab and rehab to avoid getting injured while playing guitar.

How to Avoid or Recover From Guitar Related Injuries
1
If you've been playing guitar for a while, you've probably felt some pain from your practice. Playing guitar can cause problems in many areas: the most evident are the hands and fingers, but your elbows, shoulders and back can all suffer from bad technique or too much playing.

Here's the information you will need to hopefully avoid getting hurt, as well as healing yourself if despite your efforts you still get injured.

We'll start with the fingers and then progress to the rest of the body.

Prehab (What to Do to Avoid Injury)

Lube up your joints! Joints are lubricated by synovial fluid. Unlike blood, it doesn't constantly flow through your body, so you need to move your joints to keep them in good health.

A good guideline is to take your joint through its full range of motion a number of times equal to your age each day (as you get older you need to do it more and more). So you should do:
  • Open and close your hands, wiggle them etc
  • Wrist circles
  • Elbow circles
  • Shoulder circles
  • Neck circles

Fingers

In order to play guitar well, you need strong fingers. While proper technique requires minimal effort, strength helps protect your body from injury. For example, you'll probably have to carry relatively heavy bits of gear, in which case having strong hands is useful. The best way to develop finger strength is by hanging. You should hang from something at least a few minutes every day. More info here.

If you want to get more into it, check out the Facebook group "Grip Strength." You'll find info on further strengthening your fingers (and wrists + forearms).

A problem with guitar playing is that it requires your hand to close itself (to fret strings, bend them, pick them, or hold a pick), while never requiring you to open the fingers. This can cause muscle imbalances which might lead to pain or injury.

To prevent this, you should exercise the muscles that open the hand. An easy way to do this is put rubber bands around your fingers and slowly open them a few times. If you don't have rubber bands you can use your other hand to create resistance.

(watch from 1:20 if you want to get straight to the exercises)

The other useful exercise is fingertip planks/pushups. Plenty of vids on YouTube, make sure you start with easy variations and build up to harder ones very slowly as it's easy to hurt your fingers.

Wrists

Picking and bending as well as other things can lead to injuries in the wrist. (Carpal tunnel syndrome for example).

You can strengthen your wrists by:
  • Hanging
  • Doing plank/pushup variations. Then when you are strong enough, handstands (against a wall if balance is an issue).
  • Doing back of the wrist plank/pushup variations. Start easy (against a wall or on your knees) as it's easy to hurt yourself in this position.
  • Using weights. If you don't have any, a backpack filled with books/bottle of water is an easy way to practice as the exercises require a low weight. Check out the following link for the exercises
More info can be found here.

Elbows/shoulders

Because playing guitar is an asymmetrical activity (the two sides of your body do different motions), your body will become asymmetrical as well. It's important to work to counteract it, as muscle imbalances can lead to injury.
  • again: hanging, planks, pushups, handstands
  • scapular pullups and pushups:

Back

Sitting down to play and hunching over the guitar or having the guitar weigh on one of your shoulders for a few hours can be bad for your back.

  • Bridges. Here's a progression you can use, don't try to do the hardest one first. Instead start at the beginning and work up to one that is challenging but not overly difficult.
  • Deadlifts. You'll be picking up stuff a lot and this movement pattern will teach you how to do it correctly.
  • Squat. Another movement pattern that is useful for picking up things. It will also allow you to move more easily close to the ground, which is always useful when patching your pedalboard/looking for a pick etc.
Here's a sample routine for prehab:

Wake up, then:
  • Neck, wrist, elbow and shoulder circles x your age
  • Active hang 30 seconds
  • Plank for 30 seconds
  • 5 scapular pullups
  • 5 scapular pushups
  • Back of the wrist plank 10 seconds
  • Fingertip plank 10 seconds
  • Hang throughout the day
  • Squat throughout the day
After playing guitar:
  • open fingers in rubber bands x 15
  • massage forearms

Rehab (how to recover from your injuries)

First of all, remember that only a trained professional can tell you what you have for certain. However, a lot of times you can make a good guess after googling your symptoms. (I'm only writing about small aches and pains that are directly linked to playing guitar. Nothing more serious!)

A lot of times, guitar related injuries are related to inflammation in your body. To reduce this, first thing to do is make sure you're eating well. No fast food, sodas, sweets etc.

So (google them) avoid inflammatory foods and eat anti inflammatory foods.

A great anti inflammatory drink is a spoonful of turmeric (you can get it at a food store, it's a commonly used spice) + spoonful of ginger (another spice) + pinch of black pepper (to ake the turmeric more efficient). This may sound like hippie bullshit or bro science, but it isn't. It's cheaper than aspirin/ibuprofen and as effective.

Next thing is to stimulate blood flow/make the synovial fluid lubricate your joints. So move the painful area throughout its full range of motion slowly and gently a lot. You can do this anywhere. Current research is showing that immobilizing inured areas makes recovery slower.

Check out this video for motivation:


You also need to stimulate the blood flow to that area. In order to do this, prepare of bucket of warm water and one of icy water. Put the painful area in one for a few minutes, then the other and repeat for as long as you can be bothered. 20 minutes is a good time to shoot for, you can do this in front of the television.

If you have tendinitis in your elbow:
That's all for today, please let me know what you think in the comments. Questions and/or unwarranted abuse welcome.

17 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    Kristine Stuef
    Great advice and exercises! What about thumb pain? I have joint and tendon pain in my right thumb (I play left-handed) - at times it radiates to my wrist. I imagine that the finger and wrist exercises / warm ups would help, but if you have any thumb-specific tips, that would be great. I really enjoy your site - fascinating music info and techniques Cheers, - Kristine S, Toronto
    ArthurSungward
    Sounds like you might be gripping the guitar too hard. Yes, a proper warm up will help to loosen your fingers up, but here the most important is to fix your technique. Spend some time practicing with all of your attention devoted to using the minimal amount of tension. Also check where your thumb is positioned on the neck. When you're playing chords, if you're not using it to fret a note on the low E, try putting it into the classical position (you want to have it around the middle of the neck, not wrapping around). On top of that, I'd suggest doing the hang challenge. Start with your feet on the ground, when you can hang like that for 2 minutes do it with your feet off the ground. You'll want to make sure your thumb is gripping whatever you hang from, as it's easy to let the other fingers do all the work. If you have nowhere to hang from you can practice squeezing a tennis ball for a dozen of seconds a dozen times a day. Start with a mild contraction, and squeeze a bit harder each day.
    Walldude63
    He forgot the most important tip of all.... Don't get old.
    ArthurSungward
    There's some 70 year olds out there banging out gymnastic exercises that would permanently injure most 20 year olds. Of course aging has a significant impact but if you stay active you can prevent some of its effects. According to what I've read, grip strength is one of the last things to go.
    AndersM1
    This information is somewhat misleading. Many of the exercises have been proven to cause more injury than good. The issue is in music and life we use out contracting muscles constantly e.g. fretting a note, and we rarely use the muscles which expand e.g. flicking a spitball. This imbalance is the issue. The flamenco technique rasgueado can redress the muscle imbalance and avoid injury. I have had majorly debilitating issues with injury, and this along with using thinner strings and lower action solved them.
    ArthurSungward
    Which exercises? To my knowledge, as long as you perform them with good form and you don't do anything stupid they will make you stronger and thus help prevent injuries. As long as your training doesn't restrict mobility in your hands, it's always better to have strong hands when playing guitar. Thanks for the input about flamenco technique. It does sound like something worth looking into.
    danskyx
    De Quervain's Syndrome - it is a painful inflammation from my thumb to my whole wrist .. I did suffered this for about 10 months ... the caused was i bought an Ibanez S 420 which has a very slim neck and flat radius.. my hands were get used to my Yamaha RgX420S which has a slightly round curve neck and a more rounded fret board.. So be very careful when playing the guitar..
    dudokrs_tdh
    what about pain in the fingertips from too much acoustic guitar playing? or is that just a noob's condition
    linkaara
    I wish my injury was just inflamation or something like that, and not a total loss of a tendon on my left hand which totally prevents me from close my ring finger, besides from lack of strength of my pinkie finger. At least I still can play open chords and not too complex solos : (
    dennis.1960
    I've had bad tendinitis & ulnar neuropathy (nerve damage to my elbow causing numbness & weakness in the fingers just like you) for years. You might try playing some slide/lap/or even pedal steel! You get to have the fun of soloing without needing to grip frets with your left hand...works for me
    ArthurSungward
    linkaara: I don't know anything about that, hope you can work around it. dennis.1960: Check this video out, it's how I fixed mine (just tendinitis), along with a lot of hanging and dumbell eccentric wrist curls.