Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – Musician’s Bane

CARPAL TUNNEL AND TENDONITIS

Bad words you might’ve heard. There are more, but we’ll start with these. You might’ve heard about office people suffering from it, or the people at a checkout counter at a busy store. It’s a type of injury that occurs from repetitive motions of your hand or elbow or just about anything else. Called Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSIs) Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Tendinitis, Tennis Elbow, or what have you, just focus on the last word: Injury.

Anyone can injure themselves by doing something every day, all day long, over and over again. It’s okay to a certain extent when working out in a gym or lifting weights, but even the trainers will probably have told you to do things in stages; don’t overdo; do such and such an exercise only so many times before moving on to another.

 

So what causes carpal tunnel syndrome – that pain in the wrist or fingers or joints? Overdoing things for long periods of time; moving your fingers, or holding your wrist at an unnatural angle for too long.

Now there’s a certain benefit to repetition of say – practicing your guitar scale patterns: it develops muscle memory so you can rip off a scale without having to think about it. You hear the pattern in your head, know what you want to play and then just let it happen. It becomes second-nature, instinctive, a reflex almost.

But there’s a certain point where all that practice starts to actually injure you. We’re not talking muscles only now; it’s the tendons and the related biological structures, bones, etc., that start to feel the strain. In weight-lifting or working out, some pain is to be expected in order to grow new muscle tissue mass and whatnot. Not so with tendons.

CARPAL TUNNEL SYNDROME SYMPTOMS

What does it feel like? Numbness and tingling in your hand, usually starting with the thumb and index finger, or the middle or the ring finger. Something like an electric shock going up your fingers. The little finger is most times not affected, but can be from other things.

You know what? Hold your hand up with the back of your hand facing you. Now wiggle your fingers like you were playing a guitar scale or finger picking. See those long things moving under the skin? Yup. Those ridges aren’t muscle and they don’t take well to over stressing.

Actually the first time I ever heard of CTS was back in the 70s. It was in some little article in one of the guitar magazines about a guitarist in one of the prog-rock or fusion bands  of the time who was forced to stop touring because he’d injured himself doing all those nuts scales and figures. Can’t remember his name or the band, but there was a lot of intricate guitar parts going on back then – just as now.

It comes from over doing it, and like I mentioned in another post, it’s not a sign of bravery or dedication or anything else to play through the pain. Not in this case.

PREVENTING CTS

If you want to go all He-Man or Schwarzenegger with yourself, then go ahead and lift weights or go out running. Just don’t expect your tendons will understand. If you’re practicing the guitar – or bass or cello or piano (probably not kazoo), go for 30 minutes, then take a 15-minute break. Shake your hands out, make a sandwich. You might even watch some videos (without your guitar) about picking, fingering techniques, what are the best strings,  and etc. It’s like some of those physical training clips you see, where the athlete goes crazy on certain motions, but only for 2 minutes, then stops, catches their breath, then goes again. It gives the muscles and related tendons a short break. Then the athlete goes on to something entirely different.

But I think you’re getting the idea. And it should be an idea that even the most basic, beginning guitarist or musician should get into right from the start.

CTS TREATMENT

If you’ve already injured your hands or fingers or elbows (Cubital Tunnel Syndrome), there’s a wide variety of treatments. Even ones that don’t include surgery.

Surgery hopefully got your attention.

But treatments include physical therapy, muscle relaxers, painkillers – that sort of thing – though movement training is something that seems to be gaining a following. Modifying how you hold your fingers, how you crook your wrist or cock your elbow, and being conscious of what you’re doing (or having a therapist guide you) creates a way of practicing that doesn’t cause injury.

There’s tons of resources online that should be able to help.

CONCLUSIONS

Take it easy. I know what it’s like when you feel you’ve started your path to becoming a musician too late in life. You want to catch up, to get good fast. It’s hard not to force the issue, to overdo. But there’s a price to pay, and it’s not something that has anything to do with creativity or proficiency in music, and it’s not something that you should feel you have to pay.

So, practice your chords and scales, do your finger picking patterns, but in moderation. That’s not saying to practice only half an hour a day; you can practice all you want, but just do it in stages, in degrees, with breaks in between. Be aware of pain when you’re doing whatever technique you’re working on; you’ll feel the burn, but is it muscles or your tendons screaming out for you to stop?

Think about it, be conscious of what you’re doing, and pay attention to your body’s warning signal:

Pain.

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.
Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

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