Avoiding hand and wrist injury when playing guitar – part two

Following on from my post last week about developing and maintaining a somewhat straight line most of the time between hand and forearm when playing to minimise risk of injury to the wrist and hand I thought I’d follow on with another important factor in avoiding and minimising risk of injury. Well, this is something that has worked fantastically well for me, so I’d like to share.

As Frankie said back in 1984 – relax! And when I say relax I mean this both physically and mentally. Usually addressing the latter first considerably helps with the former.

Often easier said than done though, right?

So how do I go about relaxing? Well, here are my top three things I do to make me mentally relaxed and at my most physically accessible for playing:

  • I approach my practice with a relaxed state of mind – I don’t rush into the practice room, it doesn’t matter if I’m late this time, it matters that I’m there. I lay aside the day’s “busyness” for 30 minutes or an hour, none of that matters during this time whilst coming to play. Whatever is or has been going on can certainly wait for an hour. And I use this same approach when coming to perform – by approaching our practice in this way, we’re training in not just the notes, and the physical movements, and the music and so on, we’re also training in the mental approach and the feeling associated with coming to play.
  • If I’m finding that challenging then there are a couple of physical exercises I do to help get relaxed (i) take four or five deep breaths, breathing in for a count of three and out for a count of three. This acts as a reset button for you system, gets oxygen right into the deeper parts of the lungs and cleans out the carbon dioxide from the deeper parts of the lungs too and (ii) I get doing some of my Alexander Technique semi-supine on the floor.
  • When sitting with the guitar I draw attention to where I’m holding unnecessary tension in my body, checking in with my various body parts and release if necessary – neck, jaw, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, hands, fingers, upper back, lower back, chest, abdomen, hips, thighs, calves, feet and toes.

So yes, these things help to prepare me to be physically accessible for playing in two ways:

(1) Less tension and rigidity = greater ease of movement, a more fluid and legato feel, a less “heavy” and laboured sounding right hand; you can ask more of you body when it has less rigidity in it.

(2) As the instrument is touching your body part of its resonance moves through you – the more relaxed you are, the easier the vibrations pass through you, and the more beautiful, resnonant and full the sound you can make.

And back to the main point of this post – how does relaxing prevent injury? Well, think about it like this – what happens to any material, when stressed, be it wood, plastic, whatever, that is rigid and unbending? It won’t yield, and ends up cracking and breaking? What happens to more flexible material such as bamboo, tall grass, or other material with more “give” in it? It moves with the applied stress and the movement; it goes with it, it doesn’t try to resist and as such can return to it’s normal position unscathed. (I’m in no way a materials scientist – in case you couldn’t tell! hah hah! – but you get where I’m going here….)

So it can help to think of our muscles, tendons and ligaments as working at the optimum when they’re working like bamboo – stront, but working at their best when we’re asking them to work with a bit of “give”. And awareness of tension in parts of the body seemingly unrelated to the wrists and hands is key in avoiding injury to the wrist and hands – playing the guitar is as much about the rest of your body as it is about hands and fingers. By learning to relax, or firstly learning to be aware of where tension lies (as with observance and awareness brings change), we can minimise tension, aid more fluid and musical playing and importantly, trouble, pain and injury-free playing.

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Avoiding hand and wrist injury when playing guitar – part one

I’m talking about the right hand here (or left hand if you’re a South Paw) and injury management and remediating a playing style that has brought about injury is something I have first hand (ahem, ‘scuse the pun) experience of. Yup, I have experienced the pain and annoyance of an injured wrist, with carpal tunnel syndrome type symptoms. I also have experience in successfully remedying the situation – phew!

English: Transverse section of the wrist. Base...
English: Transverse section of the wrist. Based off Gray’s anatomy diagram of the same. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I’ve learnt and then implemented (and then helped others with subsequently) is that your seated posture with your guitar is so very important, as this then influences the position of your right arm and hand in relation to that.

Problems can begin to arise over time where the wrist is being cramped up and squished up (technical term there) frequently over time. And this tends to occur if you’re playing with your right hand more or less at 90 degrees, or a similar angle, to your forearm. There are other influencing factors, but we’ll talk about those in other blog posts.

Some people seem to manage playing in this way without trouble. However, talking from my own personal experience, other teachers and a number of students that come my way, this is not the case for a significant number of guitarists.

One of the first steps in remedying that tingling, pins-and-needles, numb and often painful feeling in the wrist, thumb, palm and/ or fingers is to reposition yourself so that your hand and forearm are more or less in a straight line. It doesn’t have to be perfectly, ruler straight, but should be more straight than less so, most of the time.

Think about it – the wrist is not a massive space. This is the passageway that connects your forearm and your hand, with bone and connective making up its structure and a whole heap of tendons and nerves passing through it. Squishing up that area with a flexed 90 degree type playing style with your right hand is (a) going to make the fingers more difficult to move in the first instance as the tendons are not able to move as freely as they might otherwise, and (b) impinging on these tendons and nerves in this way over time – frequently, regularly and consistently (and with tension involved – but we’ll talk about that later) is going to increase the likelihood of inflammation, entrapment and compression. This can then lead to pain, pins-and-needles and weakness in the wrist, hand and fingers, which can then lead to reduced playing ability and in the severest cases may mean you need to stop playing altogether – not good!

Playing with a more open right wrist, facilitated by keeping a straighter line between hand and forearm, will set you on the path to remedying an existing situation (as it did with myself). Even better, if you’re just setting out on the path of learning to play the guitar or picking it up again after a hiatus, instil this as your “situation normal” way of playing from the outset. It will make things a heck of a lot easier and  a lot less painful instilling this as a new hair rather than undoing the painful and potentially debilitating alternative.

* NB – this blog post doesn’t in any way represent any medical advice and if you have pain you should always seek medical attention.