To the avid guitarist, the hand is the most important part of the body. When something goes wrong with a guitarist’s hand, it can very easily prevent playing for months on end. In fact, this is more common that some may think. It happens to many players when they decide to leisurely play the guitar, and find that they can not move certain fingers or even their entire hand.
Figure 1 – Repetitive movements can easily cause injury without warming up.
Repetitive strain injury
The most common form of this type of disabling injury is called repetitive strain injury, or RSI. This can disable a guitarist’s hand anywhere from a week, to permanently; depending on the severity of the situation. RSI comes as a direct result of poor posture or repetitive movements. While computer users may contract this via using a keyboard, guitarists can get it even easier through repetitive hand movements.
Focal hand dystonia
Focal hand dystonia is a more serious threat to guitar players, although it is rarer than RSI. This condition causes fingers to curl up into the palm, or extend outwards without control. It rarely causes pain, but does cripple the hand almost completely. For now, the condition is somewhat permanent- although botox injections have been said to work for temporary solutions.
Figure 2 – Leon Fleisher is a popular pianist with the crippling condition of focal hand dystonia. Notice the posture of right hand.
Injuries such as repetitive strain injury and focal hand dystonia can ruin careers, or a hobby at the very least. It is important to get to know why these disabilities happen- which is usually poor posture. Before playing, it is recommended that warm-up exercises are used. In fact, playing on the guitar should not start until hands are warm. Playing with cool hands means poor circulation- which can maximize risk for injury.
The most important rule when avoiding injury is to stop playing when experiencing pain. When an arm, hand, or wrist hurts- it is time to take a break. Knowing when not to play can be the best prevention of disabilities. Each time play is continued while experiencing pain, damage is being done to the hand. It is more likely that a case of repetitive strain injury will result, but the fear of focal hand dystonia should be enough to make anyone consider a 30 minute break.
What if the damage has already been done? There is still hope for improving th condition. Massage therapy, hot/cold therapy, and plenty of rest can help reverse the conditions in early stages. Above all, observing proper posture can be the best solution. Proper posture is obtained when the hand does not feel pain after playing for an extended amount of time. Otherwise, lowering or raising the guitar and changing hand positions can help find the best posture.
Figure 3 – Even professionals like Kirk Hammett (Metallica) have to warm-up before playing, to prevent injury.
Imagine Kirk Hammett of Metallica getting a crippling condition such as focal hand dystonia. Thankfully, the condition isn’t too widespread- and most guitar players are learning to take breaks when needed. As new guitar owners are learning to play, it is important to keep these guidelines in mind.