Can Guitar Playing Cause Carpal Tunnel Syndrome? Causes and Prevention

By | Updated

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase we may earn commission. Learn more >>

Yes, guitar playing can cause carpal tunnel syndrome if you’re not careful. Extended hours of practice, bad posture, repetitive wrist movements, and a lack of proper hand and wrist exercises can cause tingling and numbness in your fingers, which can develop into carpal tunnel before you know it. 

Two-thirds of guitar players are prone to carpal tunnel, so this is definitely not something you should take lightly. Many of them stop being able to play their instrument. 

If you’re questioning whether you might have carpal tunnel due to guitar playing, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll help you identify, prevent, and solve this terrible medical condition, and get you back to playing the songs you love. 

However, you should note that we cannot offer you medical advice, and getting a proper check-up by a qualified doctor is recommended if you suspect you have these symptoms. 

All we can do is point you in the right direction, and that’s what this article will do, once you read on.

What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Man suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome holding his wrist

Carpal tunnel syndrome affects those who use their wrists in a repetitive motion for long periods. Since playing the guitar counts as a repetitive motion, it could cause this debilitating problem.

Inside your wrist joint, the flexor tendons travel through a passage called the carpal tunnel. The median nerve is also present along with these tendons. The median nerve is the main highway for your brain’s signals to travel to your fingers. This can particularly affect the index finger and middle finger. 

When performing repetitive movements of the kind that guitar playing requires, you can overwork your flexors. This makes their coverings fill up with fluid and swell. Problems happen when this swelling occurs in the wrist joint and compress the median nerve.

The squeezed median nerve creates a neuropathy or compression injury, also called carpal tunnel syndrome. The nerve cannot process the brain’s signals the way it used to, and this can cause pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness of the hand.

Carpal tunnel is actually quite common in guitar players. Exact statistics are hard to obtain because there are no excellent clinical surveys. Still, one study shows that 62.5% of classical guitarists and 87.5% of flamenco guitarists have some kind of overuse disorder. This includes carpal tunnel syndrome.

So to tell you just why you should address this issue ASAP, the same study shows that the ability to play the guitar declined severely in 50% of classical guitarists and 82.1% of flamenco guitarists. 

If you think you might have carpal tunnel syndrome, don’t delay an appointment with your doctor. If you do, you might just lose your ability to play your instrument.

Carpal Tunnel Symptoms in Guitarists

Hand playing an acoustic guitar

The symptoms of carpal tunnel in guitarists get progressively worse depending on the stage you’re in: 

Mild Stage Carpal Tunnel

The mild stage is when symptoms begin to show up. This is also when you should do something about it. Arresting the problem in the mild stage makes sure that you can continue playing the guitar without much difficulty.

50% of cases caught and resolved at this stage get back to work with simple rest and some night bracing. If you overlook your symptoms during this stage, they will definitely get worse.

This stage is when pain, numbness, and tingling are only just beginning. Often there is a “stress delay”, where your symptoms might show up either immediately or sometime after playing. 

In almost all cases, symptoms creep up slowly, and many guitar players do not notice a problem unless they think about it. A surefire way to tell that you have carpal tunnel in this stage is if the symptoms happen at night while you’re trying to sleep.

Moderate Stage Carpal Tunnel

The moderate stage is when your problems start worsening fast. If you leave your stress injury untreated in this stage, you might have to put your guitar down for the remainder of your life.

In the moderate stage, your fingers will always be numb, and hand clumsiness might set in. The severe pain might even lead to insomnia. 

The loss of strength and agility in the hands poses a problem for most guitarists in this stage. Your hand strength may decrease by about 50%, to the point where opening a jar will prove difficult. At this stage of carpal tunnel, guitar players tend to lose agility and dexterity. 

The moderate stage of carpal tunnel coincides with losing the sensation of delicate touch in your fingertips. This lack of sensation will affect your daily life as well as your guitar playing. 

Do not stall your doctor’s appointment if you find yourself identifying with these symptoms. Talk to a professional immediately and get appropriate treatment to prevent it from worsening. 

Severe Stage Carpal Tunnel

This stage is when your carpal tunnel will become irreversible. There is muscle degeneration, and patients lose all hand and finger strength.

The numbness or pain is constant, and there is no respite during either the day or the night. Patients usually describe the numbness as “crushing” and ”relentless” and often need prescription pain medication to deal with it.

Eventually, patients will lose all hot and cold sensations from their hands. We don’t think it’s necessary to say that you won’t even be able to pick up a guitar if you let your carpal tunnel progress to this stage, let alone play as well as you used to.

The general rule of thumb is to get your symptoms checked out when you think something’s up. You could risk altogether losing the ability to play your guitar otherwise.

The more severe your symptoms get, the more invasive the treatment will be. This will drastically reduce your chances of ever getting back to your guitar.

Why Do So Many Guitar Players Get Carpal Tunnel?

Close up of a hand playing guitar

As we’ve already mentioned in the article, carpal tunnel syndrome develops when you use your hands and your wrist joints to perform repetitive movements over a long period. Playing the guitar can mean very repetitive motion for your wrists.

We speak from personal experience when we say that you need to fix your technique if you’re straining yourself while playing. Electric guitars, especially, are heavy guitars, and practicing the wrong posture could lead to carpal tunnel or other stress injuries very quickly.

We mention the electric guitar because you need to have spot-on technique as fast as possible if you play one. An acoustic guitar is comparatively lighter, and you can put your wrist through a lot more abuse with them before you start feeling symptoms. But this is not something we would recommend. Having the correct posture is key to playing for longer without straining yourself. Whether you’re using an acoustic guitar or an electric one, technique is key. 

Remember, carpal tunnel occurs among guitarists of all types – classical, flamenco, acoustic, electric, across all genres. So, proper technique is key here. 

Fretting vs. Picking Hand – What Causes It?

Close up of guitarist's hands and guitar

Regardless of which hand you may be thinking about, symptoms of carpal tunnel could affect both your fretting and your picking hand. 

Holding the guitar neck for a long time could stress your fretting hand. Your joint is forced into awkward positions, your tendons stay twisted and are contracted more than usual, and your median nerve gets pinched.

Twisting your hand in that particular position, holding it there, and producing rapid finger movements is the quickest recipe for carpal tunnel.

Your plucking or picking hand isn’t safe either. Your fingers are rapidly moving and pinching. Even though your wrist joint is in a natural position, your fingers are constantly either contracted or flexed. You’ll often accompany this with quick wrist or finger motions.

Your picking hand can reach very high speeds, and when combined with all the other factors we just listed, you can cause a lot of stress on your flexor tendons. When this stress pinches your median nerve, you experience symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.

What NOT To Do If You Suspect You Have Carpal Tunnel

Close up of doctor's hands examining patient's wrist

Now that you know how to recognize the early signs of carpal tunnel syndrome, there are some things that you absolutely should not do unless you want to make the situation worse. You want to resolve the injury as soon as possible and get back to playing in top shape at the end of the day.

Never wear a brace during the day or when you’re playing. Wearing a wrist brace will force your hand to fight it, whether you’re conscious about it or not. This will make the situation worse and stress your tendons even further.

The only way your body can pump away excess fluid (which is causing your tendons to swell) is by joint movement. Fluid drainage will not happen if you restrict that movement during the day and put more pressure on your median nerve. However, wearing a brace or wrist splint at night to keep your hand straight while sleeping is helpful if you have mild symptoms. 

Don’t put your hands in ice water. Although this might relieve the pain and numbness for a while, it will cause more problems in the long run. 

Ice water causes your muscles and tendons to tense up, and the last thing you want when you’re trying to address your carpal tunnel syndrome is more tension in your wrist.

Last but definitely not least, don’t shake it off and pretend it’s nothing. Remember, the best time to go to a doctor is when you are feeling mild symptoms. Not giving your wrist enough downtime and putting it through more stress will make your symptoms worse.

You always want to go to a medical professional when your symptoms are at a level where non-invasive treatment will work. The more you move towards moderate or severe symptoms of carpal tunnel, the higher the chances of you needing surgery to fix the issue. Surgery decreases the chances of getting back to playing your instrument the way you used to.

What Treatment Choices Do I Have Available As A Guitarist?

NSAID Drugs

White open jar with scattered tablets

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs are the most popular route of treatment when you have mild symptoms. These drugs reduce pain and swelling and are particularly effective when used with other forms of treatment.

Keep in mind that just NSAIDs will not solve the root cause of your carpal tunnel. They will merely mask the pain and help you get through everyday life with carpal tunnel syndrome. NSAIDs include drugs like Advil, Motrin, and Tylenol.

These drugs do not help drain excess fluid from the wrist joint. The fluid causing your median nerve irritation will have to be drained, and thus, using NSAIDs is almost pointless when your symptoms progress beyond mild levels.

Steroid Shots

Hands with syringe injecting to wrist

Steroid shots are commonly used to reduce swelling temporarily. Injecting them into the carpal tunnel passageway relieves pressure on the median nerve for a short while.

While steroid injections provide temporary pain relief to sufferers, they don’t address the root cause. Just like NSAIDs, they only mask the pain for three to five months. They do not drain the fluid or heal your tendons.

For guitarists who present with moderate symptoms, steroid shots could be a line of non-surgical treatment. However, you cannot have more than a few steroid shots in your life because of the risks and dangers that come along with them.

Night Bracing

Wrist with brace

You need to brace your hand at night if you have symptoms of carpal tunnel from guitar playing. When you sleep, you unconsciously bend your hand backward, putting further pressure on your wrist joint and compressing your median nerve.

A night brace will keep your hand in the neutral position, maintaining a straight carpal tunnel passageway. This wide shape will give your joint more breathing room and prevent symptoms from worsening.

Choose your night brace wisely. Look for a brace that is a certified carpal tunnel brace and does not have metal spines. This should help improve your symptoms drastically.

Warm-Up and Stretching Exercises

Woman stretching her wrist

Maintaining stretching exercises can provide pain relief for mild to moderate symptoms. The exercises force your tendons to glide and drain excess fluid. They also lubricate the wrist joint for better flexibility.

There are several videos and guides about which stretching exercises are the best for guitarists. Most exercises focus on stretching the flexors inside the carpal tunnel passage. This guide should be beneficial.

If you have severe symptoms, you will need to combine these stretches with physical therapy and bracing. Performing these stretches several times a day should help with long-term pain and flexibility.

Chiropractors or Physical Therapy

Female hands performing carpal tunnel massage

A myofascial release massage is a form of physical therapy that is the most potent non-invasive remedy for carpal tunnel syndrome. Chiropractors are specialized to do this, and you should never perform a myofascial release massage on yourself.

The massage breaks up painful restrictions, drains excess fluid from the median nerve, and encourages blood flow to restore the damaged nerves and tendons. To put it simply, the massage addresses the root cause of your carpal tunnel.

A myofascial release therapy practically “kneads” the skin and the underlying tendons. It physically stretches the flexor tendons in several directions at once, and the “release” that it provides makes sticky tendons break apart, increasing circulation to your wrist joint.

This therapy must be performed twice daily for at least a month for you to see positive results. The good news? It works even in the most severe cases of carpal tunnel syndrome. 

Here’s the bad news: because you cannot do the therapy on yourself, daily visits to a chiropractor or massage therapist for a month can rake up high costs.

It is a highly effective tool for your treatment, however, and if you can bear the costs, it might be the best line of treatment for moderate to severe stage patients, so you can come back to guitar playing as fast as possible.

Surgical Intervention

Surgical treatment, or carpal tunnel release surgery, is usually the last line of treatment and is only performed if other methods fail. It is one of the most common surgical procedures in the United States today and is performed outpatient.

Your surgeon could either do an open carpal tunnel release surgery or an endoscopic carpal tunnel release surgery. Both surgeries cut the carpal ligament over the wrist joint to provide your median nerve with breathing room — the difference between the two lies in the size of the incision made during the hand surgery.

Most patients require several months of physical rehab after the surgery to restore hand strength and function. As a guitarist, you might have to make some playing adjustments if you can get back to your instrument. However, there’s a 50% chance that you might never regain full hand function. That’s a scary thought for any guitarist who loves their instrument. 

How Can I Prevent Carpal Tunnel When Playing Guitar?

Close up of hand playing guitar

Being proactive is the best step you can take to prevent carpal tunnel as a guitarist. We’ve equipped you with enough knowledge in this article for you to be able to tell whether you have carpal tunnel syndrome in its early stages.

If you find yourself identifying with the symptoms, rush to your doctor as soon as you can. Fixing the problem early is the best stance you can take so that you don’t have to stop playing your guitar.

Fixing wrist position and posture is very important and will prevent carpal tunnel from ever developing. Good technique will let you play for hours on end without cramps or strain. 

Check your fretting pressure, your finger spacing while playing, the angle at which you fret, and the angle of your picking hand. If you didn’t practice good technique from the start, you might have to do a complete overhaul on how you play so that you can prevent future injuries.

Lower your guitar action if you find yourself pressing too hard on the strings. High action can cause sprains and wrist cramps which can develop into carpal tunnel over time. 

Explore a different type of guitar. You may have to change your guitar neck to a V or U shape to help open up your hand. A smaller fretboard radius, lighter guitars, and lighter gauge strings will also relieve a lot of discomfort and prevent over-exertion.

Lastly, take a break from your guitar if you feel like you’re going to injure yourself. A little rest early on and focusing on exercise, bracing, and hand exercises will save you from having to see a professional later on when you start showing symptoms of carpal tunnel. Even if you have to take a week off, do it! 

FAQs

Can I Play Guitar If I Have Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

No, you most likely won’t be able to play guitar if you have carpal tunnel syndrome. You should take a rest from playing guitar if you feel like you’re developing symptoms of carpal tunnel. Playing when you’re injured will aggravate your pain and cause complications later on, which might entirely stop you from playing. Prevention always beats cure. 

Does Carpal Tunnel Go Away?

Close up of man holding his wrist

Yes, carpal tunnel does go away with proper treatment and care – but you can only return to total normalcy if you catch it in its early stages. When you find yourself experiencing mild symptoms, get yourself checked out by your doctor or chiropractor. If you wait till the symptoms get worse, you might lose the ability to play guitar and it’ll affect your daily life too. 

What Are The Odds I’ll Get Carpal Tunnel From Playing Guitar?

It’s difficult to determine the odds that you’ll get carpal tunnel from playing guitar, because there are various factors of technique and playing style involved in this. Some studies show that 75% of guitarists suffered from ‘overuse disorders’, and females are even more likely to develop carpal tunnel than men. That’s why identifying the warning signs early on and taking preventive action with better posture and technique is crucial.

Photo of author
about the author
Gerrick Cass
Gerrick is nuts about all things guitar. From acoustic to electric, fingerstyle to metal, he's played it all, and can show you how to play it too. When he doesn't have a guitar in his hands, he spends his time writing, teaching, and hiking with his dog.

Leave a Comment