Help with Tendonitis

Hello again from Colin Berrido, the independent music teacher based in Bagshot, Surrey, England.

Yesterday one of my pupils came along for his lesson saying that his left hand thumb was sore and it was difficult to play his acoustic guitar. He has been playing about 6 months and has made really good progress. Having had the dreaded tendonitis myself in my left thumb I suspect that he may have the same problem. Today he went to his doctor and he was in fact diagnosed with tendonitis and given some anti inflammatory  medication.

After his visit to the doctor he came round to see me as he was fearful of having to give up guitar or at least take a break from playing. This was something he didn’t want to do and asked for my help and thoughts on what to do.

Here’s a summary of our conversation:

1. Always seek and take the advice from a qualified medical practitioner (doctor or physiotherapist).

2. Pain is the body’s way of flagging that something is wrong – so don’t be “hero” and ignore it.

3.The main problem was my student didn’t want to stop playing but needed to allow time for his thumb to recover.

4. Well I came up with two strategies for him:

Firstly – I also teach ukulele,  which is a fun instrument to play,  and is ideal for younger children who only have small hands. So I gave him my uke to try. Low and behold he found he could play it without it causing any pain in his thumb. After half an hour or so he’d mastered some basic chords and was happily playing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” – and, no pain.

Secondly – I tuned his acoustic guitar to an open E chord and let him try out playing some slide guitar. Again, he could do this without causing any pain.He didn’t take to slide guitar as much as the uke so he elected to try playing this for a while so as keep his “muscle memory” skills up to date – which are quickly lost if you have to take an enforced break (I was once told by a physiotherapist that this can happen after as short a period as 8 to 10 days – which goes some way to explaining why we are all bit “lead” fingered when we come back from our holidays).

So out he went and bought a uke from our local friendly music store – this with a soft case cost him around £35.  He’s now a “happy camper” – result!

Now, avoiding tendonitis is far better than trying to fix it (which can be a slow and painful process). How can you avoid it? Well he’s a list a “good habits” to adopt:

–       Don’t play with a bad posture. Play sitting upright on a proper chair or stool – I know we’ve all played laying back on the couch ’cause it looks cool and is comfortable but it can lead to repetitive strain injury problems as well as tendonitis. This how how got tendonitis in my thumb.

–       Don’t play or practice for too long at one session. I usually tell my beginners to play for 20 minutes or so then take a break. Practising should be like feeding a baby “a little and often rather than one feast once a fortnight!” As your strength builds up then extend your sessions to maybe one hour or so but then take a “stretch” break.

–       It is also good to do some “warm up exercises” at the start of your practice session – scales are a good way of getting your fingers working and warmed up.

–       If you start to feel and pain in your hands, arms or neck – stop and take a break.

–       A good tip if you feel your hands cramping up is to massage them in a bowl of warm water for about 5 to 10 minutes – this will help everything to relax out and stop any inflammation forming.

–       I personally use some 10% ibuprofen gel on localised sore spots but I would advise that you always check with your doctor or pharmacist that it’s OK for your to use this gel – and, of course, if you do use it, read the instructions!

–       Again, if any pain persists go and seek medical advice as soon as possible.

Well I hope this article has been helpful and will keep you playing and pain free.




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