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by Carlos Diez Macia 1 Comment
Playing the guitar is fun and requires numerous hours of practice. Sometimes guitarists find themselves developing pain in different parts of the body such as their wrists, back, neck, forearm, and/or fingers.
Guitarists underestimate the dangers of injuries. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in recent surveys, nearly three-fourths of professional musicians reported past injuries and pain that affected their playing.
Every guitarist I know underestimates the risks and frequency of injuries caused by playing an instrument. As with many repetitive activities (like sports), you can prevent some injuries by understanding the root cause. Being aware of this is the only way you can commit to your guitar practice and have a worry-free (and pain-free) guitar-playing routine.
In this article, we will cover the following topics:
Disclaimer: This article is not medical advice and is not a replacement for diagnosis or treatment by a qualified medical professional. Our goal is to advise you of some preventive methods to help you avoid injuries in the first place.
Playing the guitar, there are many sources of injuries that can be overlooked.
In most cases, the pain caused by playing the guitar starts from a combination of some of these reasons:
In chapter 3, we will discuss how to prevent injuries and pain caused by guitar playing and will explain some “best practices” related to these reasons.
Guitar injuries are serious because they can take guitar players out of the game permanently. There are many examples of these tragedies along with the history of music and their reason is always the same—underestimating the signals that your body sends to you.
If you are experiencing pain in some of the following areas, your body is trying to tell you that something is wrong. In that case, going to the doctor is the best option. If you want to learn how to prevent these injuries, go to chapter 3.
Most injuries can be categorized as RSI or Repetitive Strain Injury. RSIs are often long-term injuries that won't go away easily. These are directly associated with specific activities that involve repetitive movements. Guitar learning is all about repetition.
If you are experiencing pain in any of the following areas, our recommendation is to take a break for a few days and visit the doctor to ensure things aren’t more serious than they seem on the surface.
2.1- Pain in the forearm when playing the guitar:
Unlike what many guitarists think, forearm injuries are not only common for the fretting hand but also for the strumming one. If your hand position is tight, your forearm muscles are likely to tighten up too.
Putting too much pressure on the fretboard or holding the guitar pick with too much tension can develop into tendonitis.
Tendonitis is the inflammation of the tendons—the tissue that connects muscles and bones together and is involved in the function of moving your body properly.
Symptoms are pain, swelling, and motoric problems like limited hand movements. Many guitarists describe it as “the forearm feels like an old rubber band".
2.2- Pain in the hand area when playing the guitar. Wrists and fingers:
We are not talking about fingertips pulp pain known by every beginner guitar player without calluses. Those develop over time, making guitar playing comfortable at some point.
The main issue in these areas is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome that not only affects guitar players, but also any kind of activity that involves fast, precise, and repetitive finger and hand movements like pianists, hairstylists, video gamers, etc.
Again, the tendons are involved as in many movement injuries. The flexor tendons that go from the fingertips to the forearm can be easily stressed.
Symptoms are pain, weakness, or motoric problems like limited hand movements.
2.3- Pain in the elbow when playing guitar:
The famous "tennis elbow" is also a guitarist's nightmare. Technically, this is also an issue that concerns the tendons, and its correct name is "lateral epicondylitis."
The main symptoms are pain when gripping the fretboard or pain on the outside edge of the elbow.
As in most problems related to the tendons, the first symptoms are very subtle, and this can be ignored by ambitious guitar players who want to add some extra practice to their daily routines. If you are starting to feel this, the best way to prevent it is to have a rest for a couple of days and visit the doctor if the pain persists.
2.4- Pain in the back and shoulders when playing the guitar:
A lot has been said about posture, and this has a simple reason. Good posture habits can save you from experiencing lots of pain.
The problem with playing the guitar is that you need to position yourself in a bad posture to actually see what your fretting hand is doing properly. When you focus on the movements of your hands, it is very easy to forget what the rest of your body is doing, and you might slouch or sit with your back curved with no tension on it.
Back pain is dangerous because everything here is connected. So symptoms can appear on the shoulders, lower back, upper back, neck, and in other areas. This depends on many individual factors.
Fact is, this can be prevented by practicing good posture and holding the guitar closer to you as we will discuss in chapter 3.
This problem is very common among ambitious beginners that want to scale their skills fast.
A combination of three things causes the pain:
On an Instagram survey we performed with 455 participants, 64% reported having had some injuries in the past. This means almost two-thirds of the guitarists that participated have experienced some pain or lesions. You are lucky if you are amongst the 36% injury-free guitar players.
Simple actions can make a huge difference in your playing and help you avoid injuries and pain when playing the guitar:
3.1- Warm up before playing the guitar:
Playing at even semi-intense levels is stressful on the arms, hands, and the back and shoulders, just like a gym workout would be. So you need to treat it as a sport.
Warm-up can be something as easy as stretching your fingers or starting off your session by playing some techniques that aren’t as demanding as your current guitar level.
The cool thing about warming up is that once you start playing, your muscles are already prepared to deliver their best performance.
We have summarized our seven favorite warm-ups HERE.
3.2- Proper guitar technique, posture, and guitar position:
I am a big fan of self-learning. I have used self-learning techniques for foreign languages, technical skills, software, and cooking. However, in guitar, and especially in terms of avoiding injuries, I cannot repeat it enough: get a teacher.
A professional experienced teacher can help you not only develop your skills and define your learning path but also avoid and correct bad posture, too much finger tension, wrong guitar position, and other bad habits such as slouching when playing the guitar.
My recommendation if you do not have a teacher:
Sure, it will cost you some extra money, but it will prevent future problems that have a higher impact on your life than a couple of bucks.
3.3- Play guitar with less tension:
Typical tension areas are the forearms, fingers, and back.
What I did to avoid this is playing simple chords and phrases that I knew well and, while playing, concentrating on other areas of my body: is my back straight? Am I placing too much tension on the fretboard? Am I holding my guitar pick correctly? Can I avoid turning my neck and looking left?
Some hand tension can be avoided by holding the guitar pick properly. If are experiencing this, you can check our article How to hold a guitar pick.
3.4- Breaks and time management when playing the guitar:
There is a rule of thumb amongst experienced guitar players; 50 minutes practice, 10 minutes rest.
In the 10 minutes, you can check harmony and music theory, study some tabs or just stand up and move around to reduce your overall body tension.
This has two advantages:
3.5- Do not play the guitar through pain:
If you experience some sort of pain while playing the guitar, this isn’t normal. Stop playing immediately and take a break, then evaluate whether you should go to the doctor or the physiotherapist.
3.6- Play sport:
Having good musculature in other areas of the body helps a lot when playing guitar:
The combination of these aspects make playing sports a great alliance when it comes to guitar playing.
3.7- Use a lighter guitar for practice if you play standing up:
This is only logical: the less weight you put on your shoulders, the less stress you will have to handle. Some professional guitarists use light guitars for practice or even guitar stands and only use their performance guitars for their performances.
This is especially useful for guitar teachers that usually spend their whole days with a guitar in their hands.
3.8- Massages and ice for guitar pain relief:
If you treat guitar playing like a sport—and with sport, I mean high-stress levels caused by muscular movements in some areas of the human body—then you need a cool down.
Massaging your forearms and hands or using ice and cold water to reduce possible swelling can be a very simple additional routine to include in your daily practice. Furthermore, it is proven that such techniques reduce the recovery time, resulting in better practice results the next day.
This can also give your skin a break. If you are dealing with sweat problems when playing guitar I recommend you the article: 10 ways to avoid sweaty hands when playing guitar.
Nearly three-fourths of professional musicians reported past injuries and pain that affected their playing.
Some of this pain disappears after a few days of rest. However, some injuries caused by guitar playing can be very harmful and in the worst case, they will kill your guitar career.
There are simple actions that can prevent you from injuries, such as warm-ups, good posture, breaks and other common-sense actions. The good thing is that these actions are simple and do not take much time. Even better, these actions increase your learning speed.
My advice: Reflect on your routine and consider every chapter of this article as a checklist for avoiding a guitar tragedy. Good luck!
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by Carlos Diez Macia