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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.

21 Comments

  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:

    http://www.elutherie.org/repetitive-strain-injury/

    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.

    Cheers!
    jp

  2. frets says:

    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. frets says:

    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,
    Rich

  5. Rob says:

    Where can I buy?

  6. Ken McKay says:

    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?

  7. frets says:

    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!

    –Rich

  8. mark says:

    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

  9. santi says:

    long term use of Glucosamine

  10. frets says:

    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?

  11. Nate says:

    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.

  12. frets says:

    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!

  13. santi says:

    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).

  14. Rob says:

    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.

  15. frets says:

    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.

  16. David Asbill says:

    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.

  17. Dan says:

    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!

  18. Paul says:

    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.

  19. Adam says:

    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.

  20. frets says:

    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.

  21. 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!
    -Graham

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