What Repetitive Strain Hand Injuries Are, Some Hand Stretching Exercises For Guitarists

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Avoid Carpel Tunnel – Keep those hands in shape by stretching!

guitar-hand-stretchGuitarists are extremely susceptible to hand injuries – more so than you would think, but most guitarists (and other musicians) don’t really know much about what causes them or how to avoid them.
We’ve all been told to “stretch more”, but what does that really mean, and how can it help you avoid injury to your hands?

An injury that is serious enough can cost you plenty of time away from the guitar, or in extreme cases, cause you to become permanently debilitated.

See the hand at left? It doesn’t look like she stretched any before playing! Below, we’ve got some great stretching exercises for you, but first let’s take a peek at what we’re trying to avoid.

Repetitive Strain Injuries and what they mean to the guitarist

You’ve probably heard of repetitive strain injuries. They’re better known as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and Cubital Tunnel Syndrome. Repetition is what we do as guitarists – we practice the same passages over and over, and then we perform, and start the cycle all over again – so how can we be safe when something we’re expected to do as guitarists is so close to injuring the parts of our body that are so important to our trade?

First, let’s try to understand the conditions.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal Tunnel Hand DiagramThe Carpal Tunnel is a “passageway” (I’ve always though of it as a tube) that is in your wrist and houses the nerves and flexor muscles of the hands. Obviously, you can already tell that it’s important to the guitarist.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome affects the Median Nerve in your hand – and that’s the one that controls all of your fingers – your first three fingers (index, middle, ring) and your thumb.

Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel include tingling, loss of flexibility, and eventually pain in the hand and wrist. Some report burning and itching as well. Others report decreased strength in their grip.

Its this nerve that can become pinched or squeezed at the wrist, because the nearby tendons put pressure on it – and the nerve can become compressed.

If left untreated some muscles in the hand may waste away.

Who is most at risk?

Anyone who engages in repetitive hand motion could be at risk – and women are three times more likely to develop the condition.

You should look at your job first – do you type all day? Do you perform other repetitive actions with your hand? You should seek out the safest ways (proper typing posture, furniture, desk setup, etc) to do your job.

What are the treatments?

You really want to avoid having to read or implement anything in this section – but if you’re unlucky enough to develop the condition, you may be prescribed drugs, and more than likely you’ll be asked to stop doing whatever the repetitive motions were that caused it. Yeah, that’s playing the guitar. It can get better on its own, and once your major symptoms have been alleviated through rest (not playing guitar) you can use hand exercise and stretching to complete the healing process.

Some are not so lucky, however, and surgery is needed to fully correct the problem, especially in cases where the condition keeps returning.

How to avoid (RSI) Repetitive Strain Injury

First, deal with any issues you might have at work. Whether you type, or work on an assembly line, do your homework and figure out how to keep your hands healthy. We can’t cover all of that here, but you might find some help from co-workers, management, or the old and wise Google. Find stretching techniques you can do at work, a few times a day.

As far as being a guitarist, one of the most important things you can do is to stretch before you play or practice.

If your tendons are limber and stretched prior to playing the guitar, they’ll be less likely to move against each other in unnatural ways and cause that inflammation that starts the whole process.

While you’re playing, take 5 minutes every 30-40 minutes to stretch again.

Massage

Take your thumb and index finger, and gently massage the other hand from the wrist going up to the end of each finger. The goal here is to get the blood flowing before you start with your stretches. Also gently massage from your wrist, all the way up to your elbow. When done, shake out your hands to get the blood flowing further.

Stretches

These stretches will provide an incredible benefit in two ways – firstly to reduce the risk of RSI, but secondly, you’ll play better, and you’ll become flexible in the fingers and hand. Dual benefit!

While you are doing any of these stretches, be careful. You don’t want to cause pain. Just do each stretch until you feel the stretch – you’ll know it when you feel it. You don’t have to go any further than that – in fact, you shouldn’t!

Stretch #1 – Stretch those tendons

Guitar Hand StretchGuitar Hand Stretch

Put one hand out in front of you, like a traffic cop signaling cars to stop. Take the other hand and grab the fingers of your first hand and gently pull back until you feel the stretch.

Then do the same thing with each finger individually. While you’re stretching one finger, wiggle the others. Do this a few times, and then switch to your other hand and repeat.

Stretch #2 – Separate the fingers

stretch-1-guitarGuitar Hand Stretch

Do the peace sign, but with your palm facing toward you. I believe this may be an offensive gesture in some countries, so just beware of that!

Now, place the guitar neck between your two fingers, and wrap them around the fretboard as best you can.

Don’t strain or push it, just doing this action is enough. See if you can angle your fingers down to the fretboard. I can get both of the fingers to actually fret notes on the fretboard when I do it, but you don’t have to do that at first.

Repeat with the rest of your fingers on your left hand, then do the same on your right hand.

Guitar StretchingIt might not seem to make sense to do this one in particular with your right hand, but it’s good to maintain uniformity. It’ll help loosen up your picking hand – or if you’re a tapper, or finger-picker, or ambidextrous, the benefits are obvious!

If you don’t have a guitar handy, you can do this with your wrist in place of the guitar neck (like the second image above), or just use your fingers to stretch the fingers of your other hand apart (like the image at right).

Stretch #3 – Stretch the tendons the other way

Guitar Hand StretchThis stretch is basically the opposite of Stretch #1.

Take your hand and stretch it out straight, and let it hang so your fingers are pointing down toward the ground.

Grab those fingers with the other hand, and pull them gently back toward your body. You’ll feel this one on the top of your arm and wrist.

More exercises

Some really easy runs up and down the neck (done slowly) can help as well. Do easy stuff like this:

|-1-2-3-4------------------------------------------------|
|----------2-3-4-5---------------------------------------|
|-------------------3-4-5-6------------------------------|
|-----------------------------4-5-6-7--------------------|
|---------------------------------------5-6-7-8----------|
|-------------------------------------------------6-7-8-9|

Use each of your four fingers on the left hand for this one – and then bring it back down the neck.

Or you can switch it up a little to provide spacing:

|-1-3-4-5------------------------------------------------|
|----------1-2-4-5---------------------------------------|
|-------------------1-2-3-5------------------------------|
|-----------------------------5-3-2-1--------------------|
|---------------------------------------5-4-2-1----------|
|-------------------------------------------------5-4-3-1|

Almost anything will work, really – as long as it’s simple, and slow.

Find other stretching exercises that work for you.

Conclusion

With any of these exercises, be practical. Never do anything that hurts, pain is not gain in this case. Do it till you feel the stretch – it should feel good. If it doesn’t, go gently.

Lastly, be good to your body, and be aware when anything feels different. Remember that your body works as a whole, and other things like nutrition and hydration are important as well.

More Stuff To Keep You “Guitar Healthy”

 

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Tim Monaghan

Tim has been playing guitar & bass since he was 12 years old and has been in Jazz, funk, rock & metal bands. Influences include Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke, Doug Stegmeyer, Baden Powell, Steve Vai, and pretty much anyone else who has a unique style that expresses their individuality. One of Tim’s many hobbies is building, tweaking, and repairing basses and guitars.

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