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Name a way to hurt yourself playing the guitar, and I've probably done it. Twice. From inflamed and dislocated tendons to neck injuries to carpal tunnel to lower back problems to dislocated knuckles—in my forty-plus years of guitar obsession, I have spent a lot of time on ice.
As I've gotten older, these injuries have become much more inconvenient, and the recovery time has more than doubled for most of them. Not cool, ice notwithstanding. So what's a girl to do? Lucky for me, I found a guy by the name of Dr. Douglas Dennis, chiropractor and author of the ironically named (and sadly out of print) DVD, How to Avoid Your Chiropractor. I go into his office, whine, he laughs, and goes yoink—suddenly it doesn't hurt anymore. Then he tells me what to do so I don't have to come back and see him again. Ah, yes, there's the key—tell me how to do what I do safely, so I don't do this to myself anymore.
“When you’re playing—whether for pleasure, money, or anything else—it’s a job. And once you realize that you need to work out your body in order to build up stamina, balance, and endurance, you’ll be able to do it longer with fewer injuries,” says Dennis.
So in the spirit of keeping us all healthy and gigging as long as possible, Dennis and I (along with the help of models Byrn Paul and Lucy Campie), will explain the science behind the injuries and the exercises you can do to prevent and treat them. While you don’t need to do the exercises every day, taking some time to stretch on the days you’ll be playing a lot will help you do so with minimal pain. Keep in mind that most of the examples have right-handed players in mind—just reverse them if you’re a lefty.
But First: Why We Get Injured
Guitarists’ injuries typically occur because we overuse certain muscles. Explains Dennis, “Muscles that have one action have an opposing action, so if your fretting-hand is your left, you're gripping with your fingers more than you're extending with your fingers. The grip muscles, which are in the forearm, are going to get too tight. This will tend to give people carpal tunnel injuries or possibly elbow injuries, because of the gripping action. These ‘flexion’ muscles are too tight, and the ‘extension’ muscles are too weak.”
This phenomenon extends beyond the hands and throughout the body. If you repeatedly stand with one leg in front of the other, the muscles in the front of the front leg get tight and the back of the front leg get weak, and vice-versa for the back leg. “So if you’re standing in a stance with your left foot forward, right foot back, and turned slightly to the left,” explains Dennis, “assuming you’re a right-handed guitar player, you’re going to have an imbalance in the pelvic muscles, and an imbalance in the forearm muscles on the left side.”
Overextensions: Shoulders and Forearms
Chest and Shoulder Tightness
Hands and Fingers
Leg and Back Pain for Seated Guitarists