Guitar Wrist Pain and Tendonitis: Symptoms and Treatments

One of the greatest feelings is listening to the guitarist of your favorite band or artist perform an incredible solo: It makes you want to pick up a guitar yourself and impress your friends and family with the same sounds.


“You have to go on and be crazy. Craziness is like heaven.” - Jimi Hendrix

Playing the guitar is an excellent hobby, and offers some amazing benefits. What is especially great about the guitar is that you only need to learn a couple of chords, and you are on your way to playing a variety of famous songs.

Related: How Musicians Can Prevent Instrumental Injuries.

Unfortunately, many guitar players (and beginners especially) are unaware of the potential health issues that come with playing the guitar, as well as ways to treat or prevent them.

The guitar is an addictive instrument, and guitar players do get obsessed with perfecting the way that they play their songs.

Excessive practice can result in wrist pain, joint pain, forearm pain, elbow pain, and posture problems, along with many other issues.

For example, constant wrist overuse can eventually lead to tendonitis, which refers to the inflammation of a tendon and can result in severe pain and swelling.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent or treat these problems so you can fully enjoy your favorite instrument.

Wrist Pain From Playing Guitar?

Wrist pain is the most common issue that can plague a guitar enthusiast. It can affect a guitarist’s ability to fret, pick, or strum without pain and can lead to muscle aches, cramps, and in more severe cases, numbing and tingling sensations that suggest nerve dysfunction.

This is especially common for beginners because it is the stage in which they are developing the muscle memory to maintain a comfortable position for holding the guitar and playing the instrument. During this process, one may experience a lot of discomfort as their body is trying to adapt to the instrument. As such it is important for new guitar players to work on improving their hand positions to keep more chronic issues from developing.

It's typical for beginners to hold their fretting hand the wrong way, especially when playing a barre chord. Guitarists often angle their wrist excessively or get into other uncomfortable positions that are unnatural for the wrist joint. These fretting hand positions can cause severe discomfort and pain when playing for long periods. When you angle your wrist too much during the fretting process, it makes it hard for you to hold, grab, and play the guitar properly. Keep in mind that a lot of experienced guitarists also hold, position, or fret their guitar the wrong way. Guitar players who finger prick can develop thumb and finger issues as well.

And for the experienced guitar player, after years of playing, practicing and gigging the wrist, can experience what is called receptive strain injuries. Some experts claim that after playing for a long time, guitarists begin to notice some symptoms in their wrists. Experts investigated the issue, and claimed that the main reason for this was consistent erroneous hand positioning. Luckily, if you are aware of this problem at an early stage, you can save yourself a lot of pain and frustration, and if you are a pro guitarist, than better late than never. This is exactly what the Abacus® is for: to ensure longevity for all guitarists, no matter what level you are at.

Related: Combat Repetitive Strain Injury With Hand, Wrist, and Forearm Compression.

Back and Posture Problems

There isn’t a lot of information concerning how playing the guitar can negatively affect your posture; however, this is something that does happen.

The most common problem associated with posture and playing the guitar is that guitarists slouch, and this is something that you may notice when you are playing your instrument. When you do that for an extended period of time, it can hurt your overall posture.

When you look at guitarists from the front, it seems like they are playing with proper posture. If you look at them from the side or behind, however, you will notice that they are slouching or tilting forward.

Image of boy playing the guitar.

It is critical that a guitar player maintains a proper posture while he or she is playing. Often times, guitarists need to look at the fretboard when playing riffs or licks. Their head positioning, because of this, forces them to slouch down and hold their head forward, resulting in pain and discomfort in the middle and upper back, neck, and shoulder region.

Maintaining overall good posture helps improve the angles of the wrist when being played. A good posture helps avoid unnecessary extra pressure being placed on certain joints in the wrist area, which can then increase the chances of tendonitis developing.

The habit of tilting forward tends to remain in the guitarist's world. As time goes by this posture can further lead to shoulder pain, injuries, neck pain, scoliosis, back pain, or even spinal injuries.

Symptoms of Pain When Playing the Guitar

Sometimes, we get so deep into our music that we don’t realize the pain and symptoms that come from abnormal positioning or holding the guitar.

Image of man holding and playing the guitar.

Luckily, we have listed all the typical symptoms with descriptions, so that you are aware of the issues while you play.

Wrist

If your wrist starts to feel numb or begins to tingle, it could be a sign of carpal tunnel syndrome from the guitar.

Carpal tunnel involves the compression of the median nerve which runs in the middle of your wrist. When that happens, you will experience intense tingling and a numbing sensation.

If you feel pain and weakness in your wrist, that could be a sign of tendonitis. Tendonitis is the inflammation and irritation of the tendons that run parallel to your wrist, and is typically caused by a sudden injury but can also be the result of overuse.

If any of these symptoms occur, we recommend a visit to the doctor for diagnosis and recommended treatment.

Arms and Shoulders

While playing guitar, a guitarist’s arms have to bear the load of the instrument’s weight being held in an abnormal position for an extended period of time. This can manifest in several different injuries and symptoms. For shoulders, the most common symptoms are soreness, tightness, and intense pain. Similar to elbow pain, this is a result of the unnatural combination of flexion, extension, and rotation at each joint involved with holding and playing a guitar. You may also experience some soreness and pain when you flex or extend your arms.

Related: Aches & Pains You Shouldn't Ignore After Exercising

Elbow Pain

Elbow pain is a prominent symptom that results from the weight of having to hold a guitar. It is very similar to the way tennis players often experience lateral “tennis elbow,” as well as the way that golfers experience medial “golfer’s elbow.” This originates from the improper posture and usage of the elbow over time, resulting in chronic inflammation and irritation of the lateral epicondyles.

People often think that you get tennis elbow from playing tennis; however, you can get it from playing the guitar as well. The lateral epicondyle is the region on your arm that is often overuse during a guitar session. It can lead to pain that is very similar to tennis elbow and will require an elbow brace to stabilize it.

Related: Treating Golfer's Elbow Pain With The Abacus®

Fingers and Thumbs

Guitarists may often push on the strings too hard with their fingers in order to play the notes properly. This can lead to joint pain and inflammation in players’ digits. Fingers take the toll from repetitive picking and strumming, therefore guitarists that have been playing for years can experience continued strain. This can be considered a right of passage for any guitar player - the more you play the more the soreness that can develop in your fingers.

Pushing on the strings too hard and poor technique can cause severe muscle and wrist pain. Nevertheless, poor technique aside, wrist and finger tendinosis, thumb tendon issues such as Dequervain's Tenosynovitis, and the frightening Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, are issues that all guitarists can suffer from, no matter their experience level.

Related: Finger & Thumb Compression On The Abacus®

Neck

When you play the guitar, you have to constantly look down to make sure that you're strumming correctly or playing the right chords.

If you do this for an extended period of time, your neck may begin to feel aches, soreness, and pain.

This is mainly because the increased strain on your cervical spine from an inconvenient position results in overuse of specific neck muscles that can get inflamed and agitated.

Back

When your back is continuously hunched forward to play the guitar, it can result in intense pain and soreness.

If you do this long enough, it can affect your posture. This can be problematic for adolescents who are going through puberty.

During puberty, your body is constantly growing and developing. Young adolescents who enjoy playing the guitar can end up developing conditions like kyphosis or scoliosis from the abnormal posture.

Treatments to Guitar Wrist Pain

Self-care is essential for ensuring the longevity for all guitarists. If you start noticing any sort of pain, numbness, or soreness in your wrists, or other areas of your hands, then here are some treatment strategies that you can use to get rid of it:

The Gelliflex® Abacus®

The Abacus® is a self-care massage therapy device that uses rubbery gel balls of different firmness levels. Easily position the patented frame in the spot you want. Then, massage your fingers, hands, wrists, and forearms to help address the tension, pain, and stress you might experience from repetitive activity and over-usage.

The Abacus is here to help you pursue your guitar playing passion so you can play for hours and still feel good. Our physical therapy device can instantly provide quick relief for your thumb, finger, elbow, and arm pain. Use the Abacus to keep your most valuable tools—your hands— pain-free, tension-free, stress-free, and ready to play.

Here are some hand exercises you can also try to reduce pain instantly.

Related: Musicians Use the Abacus® to Stay Tuned.

Rest

If you notice some pain in your wrist while playing the guitar, then it’s important to slow down and rest until the pain subsides. When you rest, you allow the body to heal. Most injuries that occur when playing guitar are from inflammation slowly building up in the guitarist’s joints as a result of strains associated with the unnatural positions and movement patterns guitar playing requires.

That means if you have tendonitis, your body can gradually recover by sending in components to reduce the inflammation over the duration of the resting process. If you continue to play the guitar and ignore these symptoms, it can result in additional damage and slow down the recovery process.

Incorporate frequent breaks into your routine, either after every set, or at timed intervals. This helps avoid prolonged stress on the wrist that can result in guitar tendonitis developing.

Ice

If you experience severe pain even after resting for a couple of days, then this may signify continued inflammation and swelling. An ice pack can help reduce these symptoms. All you have to do is place some ice in a plastic bag and apply it onto your wrist. If you feel that the ice pack is too cold, you can use a cloth barrier or wrap a towel around it. It will be cold enough to halt the inflammatory process, but not enough to freeze or burn your skin. The goal is to use it for seven to ten minutes at a time, on a daily basis. You may find it helpful to repeat this process two or three times with a 15-minute break. Keep in mind that you should never apply heat to any inflamed areas; this will only make inflammation worse.

What’s even better- use your ice cold Gelliflex® Abacus®. One of the greatest things about the Gelliflex balls is that they can be stuck in the freezer and turn cold without becoming hard. In other words, it’s better than icing. And to make things even better, with your cold Abacus balls, you will be able to massage the inflammation and swelling at the same time.

How to Prevent Guitar Wrist Pain

The wrist is a frequently injured area for guitarists. It’s the constant tension and excessive bending that leads to pain and bitterness.

Don’t get discouraged- luckily, we have some tips for you to prevent wrist pain and tendonitis so you can enjoy playing your favorite instrument.

Playing correctly with your wrist

It's tempting, especially when you're new to playing guitar, to grip tightly. This applies even when played with a pick and a tight grip can strain the thumb muscles. The same tight grip can apply and cause strain if applied to the guitar neck or by pushing down hard onto the frets. Try only to apply as much pressure as needed and never more. 

When you play the notes on the guitar, your wrist should only bend slightly or moderately as your fingers curve to reach the strings.

If you want to, you can raise the height of your guitar to decrease the bending. The goal is not to over-bend or over-curve your wrists. This can significantly help to reduce pain, tension, and stress on your wrist.

Want to finally relieve your pain? Check out Gelliflex!

Don’t push too hard

A lot of guitar players tend to push down on the strings really hard to accurately play the notes.

Unfortunately, excessive tension can cause pain in your joints. If you experience these issues, it means that you are pushing too hard on the strings. The amount of pressure that is applied on strings can be a complicated topic, and it is something that depends on the type of guitar you are playing as well.

If you are a player who uses a substantial amount of pressure on your fretting hand, you may be at a higher risk when it comes to muscle strains and swellings. Make sure that you take the necessary steps to offset the added tension in your hands.

Warm-up properly

One thing that guitar players and athletes have in common is that both require the proper warm-up routine. 

When your muscles are cold and stiff, you’re more likely to develop injuries and micro-tears. This can be especially true during the winter season.

By warming up wrist joints and muscles before playing, the chances of exacerbating tendonitis or increasing the chances of having tendonitis can be avoided. 

You can warm up your hands by soaking them in warm water to help relax the muscles. Another warm-up routine is playing the guitar slowly during a practice routine to get your muscles ready for faster songs.

You can also warm-up by flexing the fingers and wrists in various directions and extend this motion throughout the arm. Don’t overextend any motion and carry out this warm-up exercise for between 10 to 30 minutes. This will warm up the muscles and give the tendons the ability to loosen up before one begins playing. Using tools such as squeeze balls or putty is also helpful in warming up muscles and joints. 

Want to finally relieve your pain? Check out Gelliflex!

Don’t go overboard

Understandably, the guitar is a fun instrument, and you might want to play five hours straight each day. Avoid practicing for hours, and make sure to take breaks to prevent wrist and arm pain. It’s imperative to take a 10-minute break for every 45 to 50 minutes of guitar practice.

If you are a beginner, it’s vital to pace yourself and not go crazy on the intensity and frequency during your practice session, because doing so can lead to injuries and complications.

Don’t ignore the pain

If you feel a slight discomfort, pain, or numbing sensation, then that means it’s time to take a break.

Taking a break will allow your body to recover and rejuvenate. If you play through the pain, it will most likely only lead to more wears and tears that can escalate into more significant problems in the future.

As a last resort, aspirin can help alleviate the pain involved with guitar tendonitis. Aspirin will help reduce inflammation around the tendons and joints in the wrist and allow you to play for prolonged periods. However, it must be noted that taking aspirin isn’t recommended and regular use when playing the guitar can lead to further health issues. 

Get enough sleep

On average, you should get at least seven to 10 hours of sleep each night. When you sleep, it gives your body a chance to repair all the wears and tears, and to strengthen your muscles and tendons.

If you are sleep deprived, it can hinder your body's healing mechanism and make you more vulnerable to injury.

Stretch

Stretching has been proven to be very beneficial in reducing the risk of tendonitis developing. Try to stretch fingers out as far as possible, and hold for 10 to 20 seconds before releasing. 

Do this both before playing the guitar and on days off to help loosen up the tendons and keep the wrist area limber. Stretch the arms and shoulders are also helpful in improving posture and preventing body strain.

Take that extra time to do a couple of stretches before and during your jamming session. Doing so is essential for ensuring that you will be able to play better, and more comfortable for a longer time. This is where a massage can come in handy. Stretching and massaging offer similar results; however, what’s even better is applying both to your guitar routine. Stretch and use your Abacus® daily to massage your fingers, hands, wrists, and forearms to help to address the tension, pain, and to ensure longevity.

Give Yourself Time to Heal

Whenever pain is experienced in the wrist, it may be tempting to continue playing whenever the pain subsides slightly. In such a case, do the opposite. If one experiences pain while playing this is a clear sign, the wrist area is fatigued and continuing will lead to more permanent injuries. 

Take a break for a few days or even a week when this happens to allow the wrists to recover. Inflammation due to micro-tears and will need to heal before one can start playing again. 

Stay Healthy and Exercise

It may sound obvious and generic, but eating right and exercising is the most effective way of preventing tendonitis while improving one’s overall health. A well-balanced diet can provide the essential nutrients that are needed to ensure joints and tendons are strong. It will also help with repairing any muscle damage. Food items rich in vitamins, protein, and fiber will help here along with sufficient daily hydration. 

Exercise, on the other hand, helps strengthen surrounding muscles and joints that make them less susceptible to conditions such as tendonitis. Focus on wrist and arm exercises, these will strengthen core muscles that are used more often when playing the guitar. 

Sleep is also important here as it ensures the body is rested and has the energy and time to repair any damages on the tendon or joints.

Complications of Guitar Wrist Pain

Wrist pain usually starts off very mild. It’s a very sore feeling that eventually escalates into pain and limited mobility.

Fortunately, a lot of guitar players are unaware of the complications and problems that come with this pain. Because they are unaware of these issues, they tend to keep on playing until the problem gets worse.

Here is a list of complications you might experience if you ignore your wrist pain during or after your playing session.

Repetitive strain injury

Repetitive strain injury describes the damage and pain that originates from overuse or repetitive movement.

It's the beginning stage of the wrist pain when you play your guitar for an extended period of time.

You will often experience the sensation of pins and needles, tenderness, aches, and soreness.

Sprained wrist

A sprained wrist involves the tearing or stretching of the ligaments or tissues that connect the bones and joints in the wrist. This can lead to joint pain, muscle pain, and significant wrist pain.

Tendonitis

Tendonitis is a big deal when it comes to musical instruments, and especially the guitar. It involves the inflammation of the tendons that connect the muscles to the bone. When this gets inflamed, you will experience swelling, aches, pain, and soreness during your guitar session.

There are certain symptoms involved with wrist tendonitis, that may indicate serious medical conditions. Dangerous symptoms include an inability to move the wrist, severe and persistent swelling if the wrist, and numbness or a tingling sensation in the fingers, hand, or forearm. If any of these symptoms occur, we recommend a visit to the doctor for diagnosis and recommended treatment.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

If you continuously play the guitar with your wrist overuse and overbent, it can compress the median nerve that runs in the middle of your wrist.

This compression can lead to a numbing and tingling sensation of your hands and fingers.

When to See a Doctor?

It’s best to see a doctor if the pain does not go away despite resting, applying cold- whether its ice or frozen Gelliflex balls - and using the Abacus®.

Your doctor will conduct a physical examination and imaging test to see if you have torn any tissue or if there is possible nerve compression.

With that in mind, it's a good idea to see a health care provider if the symptoms get worse or that it does not go away on its own.

Conclusion

The guitar is a beautiful instrument. Practicing the instrument, however, requires a lot of time and dedication.

Even though learning a couple of chords can help you play a variety of songs, truly mastering the techniques, strumming patterns, and fretting can take a while.  Philosophers often emphasize that practice makes perfect.

The constant bending and over-usage during practice, however, can lead to severe aches, wrist-pain, back pain, a sore neck, and other unfavorable symptoms.

It’s essential to take a break between practice and do some warm-up exercises, or regime before playing the guitar. What’s even more important, however, is to incorporate self-care into your guitar routine, to help maintain healthy fingers, hands, arms, and of course, a positive attitude.

If you experience any aches, pain, or soreness, it’s time to take a break before it gets any worse. But don’t just take breaks to take breaks; take breaks with a purpose. Using tools like the Abacus before, during, and after your practice will help make sure that you are on your way to many years of freeing your inner muse.