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Tips for Playing Guitar With Arthritis

Playing Guitar with Arthritis

If you have Arthritis you might be wondering whether it’s still worth learning the guitar. Or if you already play but have had a recent diagnosis, will Arthritis have a major impact on your ability to play guitar now, and/or into the future?

In the following guide, I’m going to explain, from personal experience, how Arthritis affects guitar players and provide some first-hand tips for playing guitar while managing the symptoms of Arthritis.

But if you are looking for some quick tips for managing Arthritis while playing guitar, try the list below:

  • Warm-up (increase blood flow to the affected joints) before playing
  • Learn some basic hand stretches
  • Take regular breaks and don’t play while in pain
  • Focus on good posture
  • Ease Arthritis symptoms by running your hands under warm water
  • Experiment with lighter gauge strings and try lowering your action
  • Focus on open chords, as opposed to barre chords
  • Experiment with a thumb pick, or play with your fingers as opposed to using a pick
  • Accept some limitations, but don’t let this stop you from playing guitar

For a more in-depth, explanation continue reading.

Who Am I To Be Talking About Medical Stuff Like This Anyway?
While I’m not a Dr. (at least last time I checked) I do have a chronic arthritic condition. While my situation is mostly under control, I have had to make some changes concerning how I approach playing the guitar. The purpose of this article is to share the information I’ve picked up along the way, including advice from rheumatologists, along with useful tips I have discovered over the years through trial and error. Keep in mind, however, that this is not medical advice, and you should always consult your medical professional regarding the management and treatment of your condition.

What is Arthritis, and Why is it A Problem for Guitarists?

Arthritis is a blanket term that covers hundreds of conditions capable of causing joint pain and inflammation, which over time can result in joint stiffness, a reduced range of motion, muscle weakness, and instability surrounding the affected joint.

While Arthritis can affect any joint of the body, it can be a real problem for guitarists due to the impact it can have on the wrists and fingers, not to mention the neck and lower back, all of which can make playing the guitar, especially for long periods less comfortable.

The types of Arthritis likely to affect guitarists include Osteoarthritis, a degenerative form of arthritis that most of us will experience at one point or another. It is caused by overuse e.g. wear and tear or injury. This results in the cartilage between two bones that form a joint to begin breaking down.

Other forms of Arthritis include autoimmune conditions, such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Psoriatic Arthritis where the body’s immune system aggressively attacks the lining (synovial fluid) of the body’s joints resulting in joint pain, stiffness, and over the long term bone deformity and reduced mobility.

How Does Arthritis Affect Playing Guitar?

X-ray image showing points of inflammation in joints of hands

Arthritis can be difficult to understand for those who have not experienced it first-hand (pun intended). This is because the severity of the condition can vary dramatically between patients and may also vary (sometimes significantly), from week to week or day to day.

For example, those with Rheumatoid Arthritis will experience periods where the condition is active (aka a flare-up) and this may last for days, weeks, and in some cases months. However, the disease may also go into remission for extended periods, especially when treated effectively with medication.

As a result, the impact Arthritis can have on your ability to play guitar depends on several variables including the severity of the condition and being a degenerative disease, how far along you are, along with a bunch of more mundane factors including temperature and humidity, your general health, stress levels, gender, and of course genetics.

Speaking from the perspective of having an autoimmune-related arthritic condition the biggest obstacle I’ve experienced is swelling and stiffness in the fingers and wrists of the fretting hand, which makes playing fast and/or playing barre chords more difficult.

I’ve also experienced discomfort in my picking hand when playing fingerstyle, and at times have also experienced problems with dexterity e.g. your hand feels unfamiliar due to inflammation resulting in swelling, causing you to play clumsily.

Taking all of this into consideration, the real issue associated with playing guitar while having Arthritis can be the lack of motivation these kinds of obstacles cause.

Can playing guitar cause Arthritis? or make it worse?

Much is still unknown regarding Arthritis.

And, while there are plenty who will quickly point out that there aren’t scientific studies that demonstrate that playing guitar can cause, or exacerbate Arthritis. It should also be remembered that Osteoarthritis (the most common form of Arthritis) is by definition a condition that develops due to overuse e.g. repetitive movement.

Musicians rely on repetition, it’s one of the fundamentals involved in learning an instrument.

Will playing the guitar give you arthritis when you get older?

Because Osteoarthritis is caused by repetitive movement, musicians, especially professionals who start playing at a young age are more prone to Osteoarthritis.

This is partly due to the excessive requirements placed on professional musicians concerning practice, particularly if studying classical music for example.

However, this isn’t solely limited to musicians. Anyone whose day-to-day life involves excessive repetitive movement may have a greater chance of developing Osteoarthritis. For example, construction workers have a 63% higher chance of developing arthritis.

Guitarists who suffer from Arthritis

keith richards arthritic knuckles

Many guitarists over the years have suffered, yet persevered despite having Arthritis. Above is an image of Keith Richards. As you can see by taking a closer look at the picture the knuckles are swollen and show all the signs of advanced Osteoarthritis.

And despite the lack of scientific evidence linking the two, it would take a brave soul to argue that this is not caused by years of playing guitar in the longest-running and arguably one of the hardest-working bands to ever grace a stage.

Eddie Van Halen is another who suffered arthritis throughout his career, as is the legendary Les Paul. It’s also rumored that Bob Dylan has mostly put down the guitar nowadays, due to the debilitating effects of arthritis.

Australian musician Daniel Johns is another who comes to mind, having been diagnosed with reactive arthritis at the age of 22 and who at certain points throughout his career was rumored to be unable to even pick up his guitar.

Can Playing Guitar Ease The Discomfort of Arthritis?

Speaking from experience movement can certainly reduce the discomfort caused by arthritis. There have been many times when my hands (and wrists especially) have felt better after playing the guitar.

Rheumatologists often recommend walking, or light stretching as a good way to alleviate the symptoms and long-term management of Arthritis.

But, finding that balance between taking things too far, and the right amount of movement is key, and is often unique to the individual. In this case, the dose makes the poison.

Managing Arthritis as a Guitarist

Pick Your Moments

I’ve always loved playing guitar first thing in the morning. It’s peaceful and gets me in the right head-space for the day ahead. However, the symptoms of Arthritis tend to be worse first thing in the morning due to the period of inactivity while asleep which often results in joint stiffness, and can usually take anywhere between 30 minutes up to 2-3 hours to ease.

In my case, I now mostly play my classical guitar (lower tension strings, more on this shortly) in the morning. I also tend not to “practice” at this time e.g. run through specific exercises or play scales as I know I’m less likely to play accurately.

Warm Up

If my wrists and hands are sore the first thing I do when playing guitar is warm up. This isn’t anything overly complicated, and usually just involves shaking my hands, doing a few wrist rotations (which is exactly what it sounds like), making a fist, and then releasing it several times. A stress ball can also be useful.

Next, I usually perform a few basic stretches, including:

Wrist stretches

Wrist Stretch

To perform this stretch extend your arm with the hand facing outward and fingers pointed up. Next, pull back (gently) on the fingertips of your outstretched arm. Do this carefully, and only hold the stretch for a few seconds before releasing.

Once completed 8-10 times on each hand, rotate the wrist so your fingers are now pointing downward and repeat the exercise.

Thumb Pulls

Thumb Pull

I rarely use a pick nowadays (for reasons I’ll explain shortly), so my thumb is usually doing a lot of the work.

A good stretch for the thumb is to position your hand so the palm is facing toward you, or outward with your fingers outstretched. Next, stretch the thumb diagonally across the palm and release, and repeat.

Bending the Knuckles

finger bends 2 1

Another very simple exercise. This one simply involves starting with an outstretched hand and then bending your fingers at the knuckles until flat against the palm (or as near as you can comfortably manage) and then releasing.

Knuckle bends are used to maintain range of motion and reduce stiffness in joints.

Finger Touches

finger touches2

This is another exercise recommended to me and involves bending the thumb and each finger (performed one finger at a time) toward each other until they are touching.

The trick to doing this one is not to move too quickly. Slow deliberate movement, while applying a small amount of pressure as the thumb and finger come into contact has been most effective in terms of reducing joint stiffness.

I should point out, that there are many times that I don’t do any of these, it will depend on how you are feeling on a particular day.

Below are a few additional steps you can take involving your guitar.

Take Regular Breaks

While fairly obvious, if you can take regular breaks and while doing so stretch your wrists and hands you will keep your joints lubricated which will help prevent joint stiffness. You will also find playing for extended periods easier.

Honestly, this is perhaps one of the most effective things you can do if Arthritis is having an impact on your guitar playing.

Warm Water

Ever since Arthritis started impacting my hands I’ve become enthusiastic about washing the dishes. While I’m sure my wife appreciates this, the fact is the warm water brings relief, faster than just about anything else.

If you still prefer using the dishwasher, try running your hands under warm water.

Experiment with Lighter Gauge Strings

The lighter the gauge of string you play with, the less tension placed upon the neck and subsequently the less effort required to press down the strings.

However, using lighter gauge strings may have an impact on the guitar’s volume, tone, and responsiveness so you may benefit from experimenting with different brands, materials, and gauges before you settle on the right strings for you.

Lower Your Action

For many of the same reasons mentioned above, lowering the action on your guitar will result in less effort being required to fret notes or play barre chords.

On an electric guitar, this may be as simple as adjusting the individual saddles at the bridge. On the acoustic guitar, this usually requires some adjustment of the truss rod, and both the nut and saddle may need to have their height reduced by removing excess material.

If this is not something you’re comfortable doing take the guitar to a professional. Removing too much material from the saddle, or even removing the nut may prove difficult if you have never done this kind of work before.

You should also explain the reasons for the change of setup as the person working on your guitar may have additional suggestions specific to your particular guitar that may help you.

Play More Open Chords

Barre chords require far more effort to play than the majority of open chords, as the index finger is required to barre each of the strings, especially where the tension increases toward the lower frets.

While it can be frustrating to limit yourself, learning more open chords, and partial barre chords can be useful. You can also experiment with using a capo which will reduce the necessity for playing barre chords.

Play Electric Guitar

While covers the acoustic guitar specifically, I still love electric guitars, and due to the lighter gauge strings and lower action found on most electric guitars (compared to the acoustic), they can be a lot easier to play when your fingers, and/or wrists are sore.

Play Classical Guitar

NO fretbaord markersshown on classical guitar

As already discussed above, another thing I recommend is to own a classical guitar and keep this handy e.g. on a stand or somewhere it’s easily accessible.

Nylon strings place even less tension on the guitar’s neck. And while they often feature a higher action than a typical steel-string guitar, to account for the wider vibrational arc of the strings, I have found them much easier to play if my hands are sore.

Check your Neck

guitar neck profiles

If you are looking for a new guitar, pay careful attention to the neck profile and scale length. The ideal profile for guitarists who have Arthritis will vary e.g. some guitarists prefer a narrow neck as this reduces the amount of stretch required to play certain combinations of notes or chords.

However, it’s also true that a larger neck profile e.g. a U-shaped neck profile may result in the fingers feeling less cramped on the fretboard and may fit the contours of the hand better.

Scale length is also important in terms of string tension. The longer the scale, the more tension is required to tune the guitar to pitch, and subsequently the more effort required to press down the strings.

Try Open and Drop Tunings, and Play with A Slide

Playing in open tunings can be easier if your Arthritis is advanced, however, drop tunings e.g. the 6th string is tuned lower also reduce tension on the fretboard making it easier to play.

Playing with a slide also reduces the necessity to bend your index finger, which is important if you are experiencing joint pain.

Ditch the Pick

thumb pick

I’m only half joking, but the truth is gripping a pick between your thumb and index fingers can exacerbate the symptoms of arthritis.

You could also try using a different type of pick e.g. a thumb pick that doesn’t require you to pinch the pick between two fingers.

You can also try something more experimental such as this gripless guitar pick system or the Pykmax Universal Picking Platform.

Focus on Posture

While Osteoarthritis can affect any joint of the body Rheumatoid Arthritis, along with Ankylosing Spondylitis (another form of Arthritis) among others, also affects the lower back and neck.

This means if your posture is poor while playing guitar you are going to become uncomfortable quickly and be unable to sustain playing the guitar for any period.

Focusing on good posture actively reduces tension in your neck, shoulders, and arms and is useful to focus on regardless but is especially important if you have an Arthritic condition that affects more than just your hands.

Final Thoughts: Accept limitations, but Keep on Going

I understand those who come to the end of this article might think I’ve offered up more questions than answers, but unfortunately, that is the nature of playing guitar with Arthritis.

Arthritis has no known cure, although many treatments are available and due to the discrepancy in symptoms and severity, what works for one person may be completely ineffective for another. For the most part, it comes back to management e.g. finding out what works for you individually in terms of your guitar’s setup, how you play the guitar, and how you warm up and stretch. Unfortunately, this can take some time.

It’s a complicated business, but for most people having arthritis doesn’t need to be a showstopper. And if you need any added motivation to continue, consider the great Django Reinhardt. While he didn’t have Arthritis, he lost the ability to use two of the fingers on his fretting hand yet became a world-class jazz guitarist and remains relevant enough today that I am mentioning him in this article.

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