Living with Finger Joint Pain: Guitar & Osteoarthritis

I’ve been playing guitar for over 25 years.  Last year, I found out that I have osteoarthritis in the finger joints of my left (fretting) hand.  I’m writing about it to help other guitarists out there who are struggling with the same problem and are having trouble figuring out what’s wrong (as I was)  & how to live with it.

Last January, I started out practicing guitar full throttle.  I set goals to learn a bunch of new fingerstyle tunes and to start arranging & writing.  I originally started this blog as a way to share my progress & tunes.  But a few months into the new regimen, the finger joints on my left hand (fretting hand) stopped cooperating.  They’d stiffen up, especially upon waking in the morning.  Playing guitar only made the problem worse.  I stopped playing for a while, thinking that I’d simply rushed into practicing too much and needed to back off & ease into it.  But the symptoms persisted.  As a guitarist, the first things you think about are carpal tunnel syndrome & tendonitis, but the symptoms didn’t match.  I scoured the Web and even researched warm-up hand stretches, hoping to find that my normal routine was incorrect or inadequate.  Nothing.

So I finally ended up at my doctor’s office about it, and she knew it was osteoarthritis as soon as I described the symptoms:

  • stiff finger joints in the morning (cant make a fist)
  • joints loosen up in hot water (like in the shower)
  • mild to moderate pain when playing guitar, or doing other activities with my hands (typing, etc)

I couldn’t believe it!  I mean, I’m not even 40 yet!  Where’s the warranty?  She explained that osteoarthritis, unlike other forms of arthritis, is an overuse injury.  Basically, I’ve worn down the cartilage between those joints from shredding over the years.  Her solution: drugs.  First Advil, then prescription meds when Advil no longer does the trick.

I will tell you that Advil does indeed help, especially for gigs & long practices.  But one of my bandmates recommended a DVD called Healthy Hands, Wrists, & Forearms which has really helped me out.  It’s basically a series of self-massage & strengthening exercises that helps your hands prepare for and recover from all the wear & tear you put on them.  I highly recommend it.  My joint stiffness is still there, and occasionally I have some pain…but it no longer interferes with my guitar playing.

Here’s the YouTube video that convinced me to try it.  Maybe it’ll work for you.  In retrospect, I wish I’d found this video before I started having problems.  But that’s hindsight for ya.


  1. I strongly recommend the cal-mag products produced by Peter Gilham, and available in many health supplement stores or online. Gilham’s formula is designed to be assimilated, whereas many cal-mag products are not absorbed very well. Also check out the homeopathic formula Rhus Toxicodendron produced by any maker of homeopathic products. Boiron is a good brand.

    Here’s a good resource site for guitar players:

    Shorten that strap if you’re playing it slung low.

    And say no to drugs! Even Advil is simply a shot gun mask of the nervous system. You want to restore communication, not shut it down.

    The Healthy Hands, Wrists & Forearms thing is great!

    Try to relax and breath when playing guitar. Fretting hand pressures and tensions should have less relationship to the attitude and aggressive nature of rocking out. In other words, Townshend’s windmills, grimacing guitar faces and such are theatrics expressing the emotion of the music– not the actual effort required to play the instrument. When people confuse this, they employ excessive force playing the instrument.

    I get that you’ve been playing a very long time, and you’re not unaware. Just re-look at your playing processes, stay loose, stay light and flow– even if your sound and style are heavy and aggressive. Any effort beyond that necessary to fret, change, bend and vibrato is wasted energy and wear & tear on the body.


  2. Thanks, JP! This is all great advice. I was just thinking about a follow-up post, so this is very timely.

  3. I found your blog in a google search and wanted to thank you for the info. I just turned 60 and work in an office job that requires typing all day so that alone does a number on my hands before I ever pickup the guitar. My playing is just one of several hobbies I enjoy and I don’t do any gigging but have 24 track PC software. One thing I’m looking into is buying a guitar with the short scale and another obvious solution is using .008’s (ultra light) strings. I’m not a fast player and I can back off when it starts to bother me too much but the typing is going to be around for another six years. As they say, it is what it is so I just try to do what I can with what I have.

  4. I’m glad it helped! I really need to do a follow up to this. Since I wrote this post, I’ve been playing more than I ever have in my life and between that and the warm-ups & stretching I do, it seems to have virtually eliminated the problem. I still occasionally have stiff joints after a lot of playing, but it’s much more manageable. I wish you good luck, I hope you find a similar routine that helps you.

    Keep strumming,

  5. I’ve been a guitar picker for nigh on fifty years and started getting osteo-arthritis in my hands a couple of years ago. Just found this thread on a browse and thanks, guys, I’m encouraged to find others who are coping with similar.

    I’d backed off practising after they symptoms started making playing painful and harder. But after (unrelated) spinal surgery for lumbar stenosis at the end of January, I’ve been sitting around a lot. And after listening to lots of CDs I was inspired to play again. And then I discovered that the meds for my spinal recovery have eased the hand pain (though not the swelling)

    My med is a prescription-only (in UK) drug called Naproxen. I think it is called Aleve or Anaprox in the States. I’m using the 500mg dose and I find that taking just one tab a day gives good relief both to my hands and to my lower back. The regulkar prescription is for 2 or 3 tabs a day.

    I wondered if any other pickers have experienced this drug as a long term fix?

  6. Thanks for posting Ken! I take Aleve only occasionally when I have to play a lot of rehearsals or gigs in a short time. But I try to avoid it. The stretches have helped me tremendously, as does hot water before playing and an ice water soak after. I’m inspired that you’re playing again, keep it up!


  7. Thanks for this info. I’m 39 and have played guitar off and on since 16. I also played keyboards and type a lot for work. After a year of not playing I started again at 3 hours a day. I started having the problems listed here in my left index finger and right shoulder.

    I’ve noticed that I have some bad technique so I’ve been working on better position, switched to smaller strings and set the action lower. I’ve been doing warm ups but am also going to try some of these suggestions.

    Playing lighter is helping.

    Thanks, this has helped

  8. Glad this has helped, Mark. Santi, I know glucosamine has helped many, but it didn’t seem to help me. I took it for about a year with no difference. Maybe I need to take it longer?

  9. Thanks for the info. Been playing for nearly 20 years, shredder-style metal guitarist, and I haven’t had to work as much lately so I have just saturated myself with practice and improving my technique. The more my fingers on my left hand hurt, the more my playing seems to worsen, especially considering how fast I play.

  10. Nate, I’m glad this helped. I found that the stretches have been a lifesaver. I also warm up before gigs by running warm (as hot as I can stand) water on my forearms, wrists and hands. That helps loosen things up. Ice afterwards also helps. Let me know of your progress!

  11. glucosamine 1500 mg + chondroitin 1200 mg everyday for years non stop,i´m almost your age i think,it didn´t alleviate completelly the pain but my X-rays shows less cartllague destruction (at least the velocity of it).

  12. I’ve got the same problem at 65 with my accoustic guitar playing and I’ve found that open tuning makes things a lot easier as the patterns are not as difficult to play [D minor is the worst with standard tuning].

    But I get out on the bike a lot and go off-road because I take my dog on a flexi-lead. I suspect the rough terrain makes the problem worse. Has anyone got any ideas about how to protect the hands in this situation?

    Thanks for the useful information.

  13. Hi Rob, glad it was helpful. I would imagine the vibrations and grip while riding would aggravate the problem, but I’m not sure. I do ride, and I have to make sure I’m not gripping the handlebars too tightly. But off-road and with a dog is another matter.

  14. I’m so glad I searched and found this information. Now to put it to work for my left index finger which does not hurt but is always tight and I can’t bend it very well until I play about half a set. But my forearm and whole hand will cramp if I’m not well hydrated and have been practicing for a few days before any gig. Sometimes the whole left side of my body will cramp if I’m not hydrated and have potassium flowing in my body. I’m going to change to lighter strings on the acoustic and electric as well.

  15. It’s good to find other people having a similar thing – mine’s only just started, not sure if it’s osteoarthritis yet. It’s good news to hear that you’re successfully managing it and continuing to play. I empathise with your initial reaction – I haven’t turned 40 yet and am also EXTREMELY grumpy about bits of my body crapping out on me. Unimpressed – when do we get bionic body parts? Not fair!

  16. It appears from reading above that many guitar players are experiencing the same type of tightness in the index finger; especially after practicing or playing for extensive periods. I have been playing for over 40 years and recently started playing more robustly in the past few months. Unfortunately age has caught up with me. I do not have the stamina to play long periods of time without experiencing pain in my left (fretting) hand. I find it frustrating when I have to limit myself with something I thoroughly enjoy doing.

    As a result, I have been researching the web to educate myself on how to remedy this condition. It appears that stretching, massaging the hands and fingers prior to practicing is the best form of pain relief and moreover, preventing further damage to the tendons and joints. I also experience numbness in the thumb / hand muscle while holding the guitar neck. Again, using stretch techniques have provided momentary relief of any discomfort.

    I am not certain from my research that there is one concrete answer or miracle cure. I wish it was as easy as taking an anti-inflammatory every time, but that just masks the problem. Taking anti-inflammation meds can lead to over extending one’s problem area. I have heard from long term musicians that Tumeric can help with osteoarthritis in the hands. I have yet to try that because I don’t think that herbal treatments apply the type of immediate help that a musician needs.

    If anyone has any other type of info that can help with “trigger finger”, I would certainly appreciate it.

  17. I’m experiencing the same problems as described above. Thank you for the tips.

    FYI, anti-inflammatories do not “mask” the problem. They do actually reduce inflammation which can reduce pain and allow longer sessions. The drugs do have side effects, some of which can be dangerous, but do not discount their effectiveness.

    As of right now, it is not possible to replace cartilage in your knuckles, so if it takes a chemical to reduce the swelling, I guess it’s up to you to decide wether or not it’s worth it.

  18. I’m happy that this is helping you, at the very least that you know you’re not alone in this. I agree that the anti-inflammatories are a god-send, but I do try to avoid using them, mainly because I can live (and play) without them most of the time.

  19. Hey there. All I have to say is thank you so much for informing the public about your experience. I’m a 26 year old athlete. Healthy, eat well, play baseball and I play guitar all day long and have joint pain in my hands. I was a little worried until I read this. It makes sense that I already have joint pain I guess. getting old!

  20. I found your website. I love the passion for guitar you have.

    Speaking of passion, I have a passion for guitar as well and it’s in jeopardy so I thought I’d ask and see what you think since you went through this.

    My left pointer finger, up at the top joint, just below the nail is suddenly quite painful when I curl my finger all the way in. Dm chords hurt and E major and Am hurts a bit too. This came out of nowhere. Never before did I have any pain in my finger. But just one day a few weeks ago it started to hurt. Just like that, like out of thin air.

    I’m 46 years old and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. Not profressionally so I’m shocked my finger stopped working. I hate to think the reality is, I could have a form of arthritis developing in my finger tip joint. And I read it happens to guitar players from all the strain we put on our fingers curling them for chord shapes. I mean I saw the photo of Keith Richards and he has some serious bone spurs on his joints. But I sure as heck don’t play as much as he does. So I pray there’s hope for me and others who deal with this.

    I read your website post from January 2010… any updates since then?
    How is your hand? Are you still playing pain free?

    I have not been playing the guitar for the past few days and it’s really bumming me out man.


  21. I’m 61 years old. For years when I went nuts and practiced and played for hours. I would feel discomfort and some pain on my Pinky on my Fretting hand (Left Hand) and knew some day it would get worse. Anyway, around (6) months ago, I was driving and noticed on my Pinky, that the nail had a groove from the tip to the cuticle. Low and behold a small mucous cyst grows below the skin on the distal (First joint adjacent to the nail). I played a gig, and the next day a little blister appeared, I squeezed it and Synovial fluid oozed out. This is one of the main symptoms of Osteoarthritis of the Distal Phalange. This little cyst develops spurs around the joint and that’s where the joint begins to swell. There is surgery, and straight Glucocorticoid shots to the actual joint that would relieve the pain and swelling, sometimes long term! Guitar is my life as well as to most of us in this site, Remember the passion Les Paul had with his Rheumatoid Arthritis which is in reality worse.

  22. Glad I found this post. I have had exactly the symtoms desribed by many above in the top join of left index finger. I’m 38, played for 25 years. I’d rather have no legs than no fingers! I got medical advice but they only presribe anti-inflamitories, that worries me becuase its a fact that a certain amount of inflamation is required (= bloodflow to the joint to promote healing) so i got advice from a natural therapist who looked at it more holisticly. His approach made sense to me, educated-matter-of-fact not airy-fairy guessing game. He has got me on a some suppliements and an anti inflammatory diet… google it. I’ll write again in 4 or 5 weeks and let you know how its gone.

  23. I am 64, played acoustic steel string guitar (flatpicking and fingerpicking) using classical technique full-time from ages 18-27, then part-time until two months ago. If my family was dependent on me to play for a living now we would starve, as I can’t barre or play chords much without pain; osteoarthritis of CMC joint (base of left thumb). Saw a rheumatologist specializing in people who work with their hands, had x-rays, MRI, had a shot of cortisone in the base of the thumb and used a hand brace. The shot didn’t start to work for a week but then it worked great for about three weeks. I am back to having enough pain that I can’t play chords again, but single notes without 5-fret stretches are ok. Alleve and Ibuprofen do little for me. Can’t turn doorknobs, open jars, or tie shoes without pain (and pulling on socks sucks).
    Maybe my specific use of classical left hand technique for everything has been too rough on my thumb joint. If I had been sloppier about technique the thumb CMC joint might have stayed healthy longer…just guessing…
    The worst about this is that my plans for retirement (goofing off, playing fretted instruments to my heart’s content) are shot. I can’t depend on my hand for performance, so I’ll have to settle for myself as an audience for good.
    This forum is a great place to kvetch. Thanks.

  24. Hi I am 64 ,I play guitar every day and gig on a regular basis.I have osteoarthritis in back neck and hands ,the hand arthritis more prominent in the last 15 years.
    I don’t agree with previous post that changing to lighter strings helps,I have found that exercise of all my joints be it back neck or hands has improved pain relief and mobility.I actually changed to using 11s on my electrics .Changing to lighter strings will only weaken your fingers, you need to strengthen them.I have found playing lead runs for a while loosens up my fingers,then makes it easier to play chords.playing every day helps keeping the fingers moving,they stiffen up very quickly if I go a day or too without a workout.

  25. Hi. I am a jazz guitarist. I practiced at least 4 hours 24/7 up to about 4 months ago. I am 62 and have very bad cases of arthritis especially in my left hand. My left forefinger middle knuckle, sticks up like a pyramid, from it. When I first started to take lessons at age 23, I practiced 12-14 hours a day for about 2 years. Not good. Never ever do that. If you have to play, learn another instrument. Learn the piano or the trumpet after you get your 2-3 hours in on guitar at most. I wanted to be a studio cat so I read quite a lot but I am paying heavily for doing that. Then (if you want to) transcribe solos or study theory and harmony or learn that other instrument. I am not a guitar snob. I respect good or great playing of any style. You can get to be great if you practice correctly 2-3 hours a day. I was so bummed realizing I would never be a player again. I cannot play more than a 30 min at a time. I am now studying arranging and composition. I need a musical outlet. All of us do.

  26. It is the “F” Chord That ruined my left forefingrrrrrr. (Grrrr it hurts alot) It now hooks worse than a November field goal! The first knuckle is getting sore all the time and bulging. Take a look a Keith Richards if you want to feel better. Poor bugger.
    I always said the F Chord makes you strong. But it comes with a tax. Peace on our fingers brothas!

  27. hello i have very serous pain hands trigger finger corpral tunnell. serguons want to cut around my thumb cut a tendon in my for airm rap this temdon a ound my thumbd at my wrist to creat a cussion. between thumb and wrist.then cut the hand palm to realese the trigger finger. they say no guarente this will work. i have tryed a work out hand and wrist
    tape. this made my pain much more and made me totaly unable to play and sleep is now very bad from from this new tape i used.the tape was 30 min twice a day.i did this for a has recked me. i payed a lot of money for the tape. i am very depressed.100% pstd from nam.i will say your way was much shorted and and more professional.i wish i had eased into this program with your team.i am done no more playing.i have been shot down.

  28. 53 years old, been playing since 11 and just diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my index finger. Horrified doesn’t even come close but at least I know I’m not on my own. Ibuprofen seems to be the way forward when gigging. Best of luck to all us old rock’n’rollers…

  29. Happy to have found this blog and comment stream, and I’m grateful for the “Healthy Hands, Wrists and Forearms” video recommendation…will check it out. I’ve played finger-style acoustic guitar for 50 years (I’m 64, the age of several other commenters…), heavy on the bass strings (lots of drop-D). In my 20s it was not unusual for me to practice 7 hours at a time. In my 30s I played background music at events for similar lengths of time. I’d always been “double-jointed” with over-flexible joints & ligament laxity, but this past year my joints began stiffening, chording became difficult and I started to get severely painful thumb muscle spasms/cramps especially in my right thumb. I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel years ago, but few symptoms. Last month I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis especially rt. thumb base joint: CMC1, no surprise, nothing like Keith Richards, but my finger joints show what I do for work. It doesn’t help that I am also an artist & writer with misshapen joints from gripping pencils. When I get thumb cramps, a velcro splint helps a little over the day or so it takes to subside, as does ibuprofen, but I can do literally nothing with my right hand until the pain is gone. Insurance pays for nothing. I saw a hand therapist for 2 sessions but it would only have helped if I could have afforded regular visits. Until Medicare kicks in, if it covers this, I am on my own. Art, writing and playing guitar are my life. This scares me. I bought a banjo and play it capo’d to D to accomodate tendonitis in my shoulder, but I can’t tell if it’s easier on my thumb or harder. I’ve changed my guitar playing style, simplifying. I’ll write more, sing more. I think laying off playing was a mistake as I agree with what was previously said: maintaining muscle tone is important, especially with lax ligaments. This sucks! It even hurt to type this!

  30. I have been playing classical guitar for over fifty years! I have osteoarthritis in my hands and wrists, which is getting progressively worse. My playing has obviously suffered – I can usually ignore the pain or work through it, but the impact on my mobility is another matter. It takes about an hour of practice before the stiffness subsides! I have been trying to get a copy of the Health Hands, Wrists and Forearms DVD, without success. Amazon UK no longer stock it and don’t know if they will in the future. I can’t find any other stockists in the UK. I would order from the USA but I know they use a different format for their DVDs. Can anyone help?

  31. I’m 70, started playing at 67, and love it more than anything, had basal joint surgery on the thumb in 2013, then severe pain in the fretting hand index finger due to no cartilage came next. Took cortisone shots every three months for two years and am now scheduled for surgery on Dec 14th to replace both the middle finger knuckle joint and the index finger knuckle joint, with silicone replacements. I’m sick to death of this, I’ve worked so hard to learn guitar, took a year of lessons, played every single day (until recently, when the pain is too severe some days) for 3 1/2 years, bought my dream American Strat, learned enough pentatonic to play along to BB King videos, and now it might all go done the tubes, but I can no longer bear the pain.

  32. I haven’t seen much reference to barre chords here. They seems to be the single biggest stress on the thumb, having to support the back of the guitar by itself. That’s where I get swelling (though not much pain), in the left base of the thumb. I’ll check out the Healthy Hands.

  33. I suffer from osteoarthritis in my thumb joints, mostly on my fretting hand. I’ve been using an arthritis balm from my local medical cannabis store : http://www.cannalifebotanicals .ca . It reduces the pain significantly for about two hours, and it sure beats the Advil bomb.

  34. Another 64 year old, been playing over fifty years. Mine started with the pinkies. I can live with that. Next it moved to the ring fingers, then the middle fingers. Not good. Not good at all. There are ways (most mentioned above) to alleviate the pain, but nothing stops the advancement. I don’t believe my playing has made it worse. I suspect I would have this problem if I didn’t play at all. Stretching, supplements, hot water, and patience all help. Also gratitude for the good years I’ve had with my instrument. I will die someday. I hope I can play in some manner until then.

    Thanks to everyone who has posted on this thread. It helps to know you’re not alone.

  35. Hi,
    I’ve been playing for 46 years now and have developed osteo arthritis in the DIP joints (joint next to nail) in both hands. The first, middle and pinky fingers of my left hand, and the first and middle of my right. The diseased joints go by a common name of Heberdens nodes. Athough the wear and tear of playing hasn’t helped it is hereditary in my case as my mother is crippled with the condition. I believe Keith Richards has this.
    Currently in the UK the only treatment is steroid injections into the joint (very painful believe me) or fusion of the joint. In the USA and Australia they perform joint replacement which is discouraged over here as the joint is so small. However I’ve found a surgeon over here that has performed over 300 DIP joint replacement surgeries with only a 5% failure rate. So I’m taking the plunge and having the left hand done first, although not my pinky as the surgeon will only do two fingers in one go. I really hope that I can play properly again pain free. Biggest ironies of my life, I’m now comfortable with my playing and play how I always wanted to, and I met and married a Nurse who’s specialist field is arthritis, and she can’t ease my suffering.
    I’ll keep you posted, it’s gonna be a painful and anxious journey just hope I don’t end up having to sell my collection of fantastic instruments.

  36. We can’t help your fretting fingers–YET–but we can ease any discomfort or pain in your picking hand.

    Scan our new PICK SLINGER. No more ‘death grip’. Now, simply GUIDE your pick–not GRIP it. You wear our support like a ring and it ‘slings’ your pick in and out of your grasp. Uses ANY pick, too!

    Here’s our page or see PICK SLINGER on facebook

    Please don’t look at this post as SPAM. We’re trying to get the word out to guitarists that would like to play as they used to once again. TY.

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