Relaxation and Pain Management for guitar players

I've been studying the types of overuse injuries that guitarists are prone too for nearly ten years. In the development of the TuneUp program I've analyzed different postures and techniques from players of varying ages and styles and found that the common denominator in people whose playing is effected by musculoskeletal pain is excess tone or tension in their muscles.

If the muscles in your arm are tense, they are working harder at rest than mine are. If we both do the same repetitive movement for even a short time, you've used a lot more energy than I have. You've created more chemical waste products, you have a reduced blood flow to remove them, your brain thinks the area needs strengthening because your working so hard so the connective tissue associated with these muscles becomes thicker and matted up like a scar because of the poor fluid supply. Keep it up and the whole system starts to break down. You lose flexibility and eventually you'll be in a lot of pain. The lack of blood supply in specific locations will lead to trigger points and referred pain elsewhere in your body. If the muscles are relevant to your posture, your shape will change and other muscles will be overloaded and we start a whole new cycle somewhere else.

So there are two solutions. Firstly treat the shortened, malnourished muscles and secondly learn to reduce the amount of tension in the first place so we can break these cycles. Treatment should consist of three phases: warm up to increase blood flow; soft tissue manipulation to break up scar tissue and restore myofascial integrity and stretching to lengthen the myofascia and warm back down. It is possible to treat most muscles yourself but you need to know what you're doing. It is not possible to explain fully here how to do this safely so if you want more information see a suitably qualified health professional or check out the links to my web site where you can buy the complete program.

The second part of the equation is learning to relax which, unfortunately, is not as easy as it sounds. Even if you are able play with soft hands learning to relax your whole body will be of a lot more benefit. I know from tai chi that it is possible to stand and move into what are sometimes awkward positions with ease and total relaxation. When you're playing you need to be focused, relaxed, and able to move quickly and efficiently.

Here is the basic tai chi stance. Your legs give you a strong solid base, which allows your upper body to be open and relaxed, it is the platform from which all tai chi moves are made. With a little modification it's also a great platform for a relaxed playing posture.

  • Stand with your feet parallel and about shoulder width apart.
  • Unlock your knees so that they are very slightly bent and you feel the weight of your body in your legs, not your back.
  • Tilt your pelvis back a little to straighten the curve in your low back. Don't go too far you don't want to close off the lower abdomen.
  • Lift your sternum, that's the bone in the middle of your chest that the ribs connect to. This will allow your chest to open, your shoulders to fall back and neck to straighten up.
  • Make sure that your palms are facing into the sides of your body and your shoulders are relaxed. They'll commonly creep up toward your ears when you get tense.
  • Bring your awareness to your lower abdomen. Make sure that your abdomen rises as you breathe in and falls as you exhale. This will ensure that your lungs get plenty of air and importantly it brings your energy down out of your chest where it tends to get stuck and cause a lot of muscle tension.
  • Concentrate on your breathing and with every out breathe let out a little more tension until you can feel your whole body responding and feeling heavier.

Put your guitar on a strap and start playing. Pay attention to the position of the guitar, it's commonly way too low and that will strain your wrists and back. Keep your hands loose, your shoulders relaxed and chest open. It'll be a challenge at first but you'll soon be able to play with significantly less physical tension. Stop and check your stance periodically, learn to listen to your body. Bring your attention back to your breathing whenever you notice the tension building, take rest breaks, apply the same principles when you're sitting, soon it'll be second nature.

There are a couple of chapters in my program devoted to relaxation techniques, much more than can be accommodated here. There's specific advice on technique, getting your posture right, your hands soft, and your shoulders loose. There's treatments for wrist and elbow pain, shoulder pain, neck pain and headache, back pain and pain and tingling in the arm and hand.

There's information on what muscles do what, how they cause pain, what playing the guitar does to different structures, why you should take certain precautions with treatments, what type of other treatments are effective for particular problems and plenty more.

For more information on the program check out There's a description of the program, a sample chapter with other tips to help reduce some of the causative factors of overuse injuries, and a secure e-commerce system where you can purchase the complete program. You can also contact me via the web site if you need any more information.

BIO: Patrick Curley is an acupuncturist and massage therapist with a Bachelor of Health Science in Acupuncture and over 10 years clinical experience as a body worker specializing in biomechanics. Before that he was a professional musician who was forced to find something else to do when his body wouldn't allow him to play his guitar any more. He learned enough to fix his own problems and then through research and clinical experience has developed the TuneUp program, a program of relaxation and pain management for guitar players.

See Also: Health & Safety for Guitarists & other Musicians

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