I should say at the outset that this is not meant to be medical advice. Serious chronic pain should be addressed by a professional. But understanding some basic mechanics can help you tell the difference between a signal to change something and an impending or developing injury.
I’m not talking about the sore fingertips beginners develop as they work on building calluses. This can be frustrating, but not a sign of a deeper problem. Sometimes switching to lighter strings can really help with this, or tuning the guitar down the ease the string tension. But the fact is, calluses take time to build and the fingertips might hurt some in the process. This is normal and to be expected.
Where do you feel it?
The most common places people feel pain from playing guitar are the base of the thumb, the wrist, and the forearm.
Most of the time to pain starts as simple muscle fatigue. There are lots of small muscles in the hand and arm, and intricate work like guitar playing can work them harder than your body is used to. You may have been told that you need to just “push through it”, but I disagree. “No pain no gain” may apply to building strength in the large muscles of the body, but the hands are a different story. If you’re being told to “just press harder” – and I rarely say this – find a new teacher.
There are three main factors I’ve observed that contribute to hand and arm pain, and fortunately there are simple solutions than can help.
1. Find a more natural hand position.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from a student that a teacher told them to just grip harder. Some people even use the word “grip” to describe chord shapes. This is bad advice, plain and simple. Your goal is to develop relaxed control, and that doesn’t come from working harder. The best approach is ergonomic: using the mechanics of the hand to produce maximum force with minimal effort.
Provided that your guitar is set up properly, the best and clearest tone will come from an efficient hand position. Your finger should rest on the strings, not squeeze them. Pay attention to the shape of your wrist and fingers. The strongest natural position is a straight wrist with slightly curled fingers:
Allow the thumb to fall where it wants to, and don’t worry about whether it extends over the top of the neck – it usually will. Remember that a lot of the specifics here depend on the proportions of your hand and the size and shape of the neck…there’s no absolute “right way”. But if you feel like your hand is making a claw like the Wicked Witch of the West, you’re definitely bending everything too much!
If the notes aren’t ringing clearly, make an adjustment to your hand or wrist. Let the fingers fall as naturally as possible on the strings. As a rule, your fingers will be more curled on the thinner treble strings and more extended when you reach for the thicker basses. Your wrist should be basically straight but not rigid. Think of the wrist as a hinge that can move forward or back. Play with this until you find the most relaxed position. If you feel compression or pain in the wrist, you’re probably bending it too far. Make sure your guitar neck is at least slightly elevated, that will help.
2. Playing with chronic tension.
Most of us carry at least some amount of tension in our neck and shoulders. This can severely limit the flexibility and strength of your hands: the small muscles of the hand are supported by the larger muscles of the upper arm and shoulder. It’s amazing what a difference it can make in your strumming when you pay attention to your shoulder rather than your hand! You may find that you raise one shoulder higher than the other, or that you rotate your upper body in awkward ways. When we’re focused on the hands, it’s easy to ignore that fact that they’re attached to the rest of you.
Another problem area is the forearms. If your hand position is tight, your forearm muscles are likely to tighten up too. This is a problem for both hands: too much grip in the fretting hand, or too much tightness in the strumming wrist and arm. The forearms should be light and relaxed: let the support come from the upper arm, and think of the forearm as the way to move the hands. The movement needs to initiate from the fingertips…think of the forearm as a hollow tube, led by the fingers.
3. Overpracticing or mindless practicing
Put simply: take breaks and rest your hands between practice segments. DON’T mindlessly go for the same quick movement over and over. Execute the movement, relax and refocus, do it again, relax and refocus. These moments of “letting go” really do help the muscles stay more relaxed. Then every fifteen minutes or so, put the guitar down for a moment. Be aware of your posture, too…if you’re slouching on the couch, you’re probably making your hands work harder than if you were standing with a strap or seated upright.
If you’re a performer and your hands hurt after a show, try to recognize if you’re bearing down harder than you should when you play. Anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil and Aleve are helpful if your muscles are sore, and soaking the hands can help too. There are also various topical remedies that can help. But remember that these are treatments for the symptom, not the problem. Be as aware as you can, manage the pain when it flares up, and get medical advice if it persists.
What about warmups?
If you’re practicing properly – starting off slowly, relaxed, and controlled – then the warmup will happen naturally. There can be value in gentle hand and finger stretching, but it’s also easy to overdo these and hurt more than help. Think of your first few minutes when you pick up the guitar as time to get reacquainted. Almost anything can be an effective warmup if you’re paying attention and not rushing through it. On the other hand, “warmup” exercises can do real damage if you do them too quickly, and especially if there’s tension in the hand when you do them. Pay attention to what your body tells you!