Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is one of a class of injuries called RSI’s (Repetitive Stress Injury). It’s true that typists and computer users are often affected by RSIs, but so are factory workers and anyone else who performs repetitive actions in their job – including musicians.
In general, the injury occurs over time, when you have forced your hands or arms into unnatural contortions over and over again. Nerves and tendons become irritated and extremely painful. At first, the pain only occurs when you are doing the repetitive action, but as the damage increases, the pain can become chronic, severely limiting your motion.
It’s important to know that injuries like Carpal Tunnel are cumulative. Once you begin to feel pain while playing your guitar, you need to make changes to prevent further damage. People with advanced RSIs have been forced to change careers, no longer able to work without pain, and causing a serious and costly problem in their lives. Imagine never being able to play because of the pain.
So what to do if you have begun to feel some intermittent pain while playing? It’s a good idea to scrutinize your technique, and see which motions seem to be putting stress or tension on your hands or wrists, and even your shoulder. It’s unnatural to your body’s anatomy to perform repetitive tasks using your wrists and hands, but not using your upper arms (tasks like typing or playing an instrument). The long nerves in your arms can be irritated, especially at the joints. You need to refine your troublesome techniques by slowly retraining yourself to play with less binding hand positions. You also need to stay in decent shape, so take up some mild exercise if you need to strengthen your body. Once you are using correct form, your pain should disappear. Just make sure not to over do it by keeping your practices to a modest amount of hours.
If you already feel the pain even when you are not playing, things have unfortunately advanced to a more serious state, meaning you have caused more damage to your nerves. You should probably see a doctor at this point. RSIs of this caliber are extremely painful and hard to recover from. My injury, caused from working on the computer, advanced so far I was in constant pain day and night for several months, and was afraid I would no longer be able to do this sort of work. (Thankfully I was able to heal well enough to continue, but it was a long process).
I’m not a doctor, but here are some things that will help:
1. Keep your hands and wrists warm. Your movements will be smoother and less troublesome if you warm the area up before working. Warm water, blankets, heating pads, etc. will help you keep warm. Another favorite of mine is to fill an old sock with uncooked rice and tie the end shut. Heat in a microwave for a minute or two. Makes a great hand warmer. (Also great for stiff muscles).
2. Sometimes an ace bandage or wrist brace from your local pharmacy can help you avoid painful motions, used during work or other activities.
3. Try to balance your repetitive motions with activities that use your upper and lower arms, as opposed to just your hands and wrists. I used to go out and sweep my garage floor with a broom several times a day. The long sweeping motions helped heal the pain and balance the workout load on my nerves.
4. Be careful taking pain medicine to keep working. It may stop the pain, but it will not stop the progress of damage you are doing to your body. In fact, numbing the pain can lead to increased damage if you play longer than you should because you aren’t feeling it.
5. Use hydrotherapy. One thing that helped me tremendously was a hot tub. The combination of warmth, free movement, and massage really helped me treat the painful areas.
6. Some people swear by herbal supplements for treatment, and others end up going the route of surgery to remove the pressure on their nerves. Hopefully, you will use proper technique and avoid such a serious situation.
The bottom line is, RSIs are serious, and as a musician, you are a prime RSI candidate. You also have a lot to lose if you are afflicted with a serious RSI. Use common sense while playing, and in your daily life. Be aware of how you are positioning your hands and wrists, and correct positions that create pain, tension, or stress. Make sure to allow rest periods and other physical activities to balance out your load and keep you flexible. Above all, don’t try to bully your way through once you have pain. It won’t work. You have to let the nerve heal, and continued work will cause continued irritation. Once it heals, you can go back to playing, with improved technique to avoid future injury.