Aside from typing on phones and computer keyboards, most of us aren’t used to the manual dexterity you need to play notes, chords, and perform other string acrobatics.
But the more you know about what your fingers do when you shred, strum, or pick, the more you can do to prevent pain and potential injuries such as tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome that can accompany guitar playing.
Let’s get into what causes your fingers to hurt when you play the guitar and what you can do to prevent or treat the pain when it occurs.
Most people don’t typically use their fingers to press down on thin metal or nylon strings in their everyday lives.
So when you first take up the guitar and spend up to a few hours or more practicing new notes or chords, it’s no wonder your fingers hurt!
Repetitive contact with strings can cause blunt trauma on your fingertips
When first playing a string instrument, the relatively soft tissue on the tips of your fingers experiences repeated blunt
The trauma results from making constant, repetitive contact with the harsh material of the strings.
Over time, this repeated pressing wears away the top layer of skin, exposing the more sensitive and nerve-dense dermal layer underneath.
Trying to keep playing with exposed fingertip tissue is painful enough. But if you keep playing without letting the skin grow back, you can do real and permanent harm to your skin, nerves, and blood vessels.
In extreme cases, you can lose sensation in your fingertips completely.
If you let these injuries heal, they’ll eventually turn into calluses and allow you to play without any pain. In fact, this is considered a rite of passage for many new guitarists.
Repeated isotonic movements can strain finger tendons
Sore and exposed fingertip tissue is only one type of injury guitar playing can expose you to.
The repetitive movements you make to play the guitar are called isotonic movements.
Performing these isotonic movements a lot for a long time can put strain on the tendons in your fingers. Tendons allow your fingers to move fluidly over the fretboard on your guitar.
Overuse of fingers and wrist can cause tendinopathy or tendinits
Developing calluses on your fingertips is a rite of passage for new guitarists.
Developing calluses on your fingertips can relieve a lot of the initial pain of learning to play guitar. On average, it takes 2 to 4 weeks for calluses to fully form.
But callus formation differs from person to person depending on:
- how often you practice or play
- what kind of music you play (rock, folk, metal)
- what techniques you use (strumming vs. fingerpicking, simple vs. complex chords)
- what kind of guitar you play (acoustic, electric, bass, fretless)
- what type of strings you use (nylon vs. steel)
- how tough your fingertip skin is before taking up the guitar
Keep in mind that your skin can heal if you don’t regularly keep up your guitar playing, and the callus formation process doesn’t need to begin again.
How to speed up callus formation
Here are some tips for speeding up callus formation:
- Practice a lot for short periods, giving your fingers a break so that you don’t break open the skin.
- Start with a steel-stringed acoustic guitar to get your fingers used to tough materials.
- Use thick-gauge strings that can rub against your fingers and develop calluses rather than cut open your fingertips.
- Press down on a thin edge of a credit card or similar object when you aren’t playing to get your fingers used to the sensation and pressure.
- Use a cotton ball with rubbing alcohol on your fingertips to dry them out and promote faster callus formation.
There’s plenty you can do to avoid or reduce the pain of playing guitar. Here are some best practices:
- Don’t press down too hard when you hit a note or chord. Many guitarists will tell you that a light touch will typically give you the sound you want.
- Keep your nails short so that the fingernails don’t absorb the pressure and put strain on your fingers.
- Start short and play longer and longer as your calluses develop and you adjust your technique to minimize pain. Play for about 15 minutes at a time three times a day and go from there.
- Switch to lighter-gauge strings once your calluses are built up to avoid the possibility of being cut by a thinner string.
- Adjust the space between the strings and fretboard on your guitar so that you don’t have to push down as hard.
Here are some home remedies for treating finger pain before or after playing:
- Apply a cold compress to relieve the pain and swelling.
- Take a mild pain medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil), for muscle or joint pain.
- Apply a numbing ointment to ease the discomfort between sessions.
- Soak injured fingertips in apple cider vinegar between sessions to promote healing.
- Talk to your healthcare provider about surgery if the pain is constant and intense, even if you haven’t played in a while.
Long-term guitar playing can increase your risk of carpal tunnel syndrome if you’re not careful.
Here’s what you can do to reduce your risk:
- Take breaks between long sessions to relax your muscles and tendons.
- Flex and stretch your wrist and finger muscles often to keep them flexible.
- Keep your hands warm to allow more muscle and tendon flexibility.
- Don’t crack your knuckles often or at all.
- Meet with a physical therapist, if possible, to get regular treatment for sore or damaged muscles and ligaments.
Here are some more carpal tunnel exercises you can try to help reduce the symptoms or development of the condition.
Whether you’re passionate about the guitar or just want to be able to play a song or two, you definitely don’t want pain holding you back.
It’s important take care of your fingers inside and out. Be kind to your fingertips by building up your calluses gradually. Do whatever you can to limit the stress and pressure on your finger joints and tendons.
Now go shred (or strum, pick, or tap)!