My “day” job involves writing software, which means I spend a lot of time typing away at a computer. We all know that too much typing, especially under less-than-ideal conditions, can lead to permanent damage, pain and discomfort in the form of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). No fun.
To keep my hands in the game both for computer work and guitar playing I take extra care of my hands and wrists. Here are some thing I do that have helped me stave off any hand or wrist injuries. Because of the extraordinarily litigious society that we live in, I have to first give the standard disclaimer that I am not a trained medical professional. I’m just a dude who has been doing this for a while and found some things that worked for me.
What’s the one thing they always tell you to do before you start exercising? You got it: stretching. The same is true for playing the guitar. I do three different stretches for each hand. In the first one I put my hands together as if I were praying and slowly and gently eleveate my elbows to stretch my wrists out. I’ll also spread my fingers out to focus the stretch on particular parts of the wrists.
For the next stretch, I put my hand in front of me and rotate it 90° so that fingers are pointing sideways. Then I gently rotate my wrist with the other hand so that my thumb is rotating away from me. You don’t need to stretch quite as far with this one because, at a certain point, your rotation will be limited by bone-on-bone contact. Don’t push it.
For the last stretch, I put my hand in front of me, palm up, and gently rotate my hand outward with the other hand. I hold each of these stretches for about ten seconds. When I finish, I let my arms fall loosely to my sides and gently shake them out. I’m not trying to snap anything, just shake them out a bit. This is something I learned from taking an Aiki-do class many years ago.
The stretching routine worked pretty well for years, but I felt like I could do more. Sometimes the muscle between my thumb and index finger and the muscles at the base of the thumb would pretty overworked between typing and playing guitar. Some days it would be really sore and I wanted to address this before it became a bigger problem.
By chance I stumbled onto a conversation between recreational rock climbers about hand exercises they use. Rock climbers face several of the same problems as guitarists, due to the overuse of flexor muscles. These are any muscle groups you use to contract muscles. For a typist, your flexor muscles are what make your fingers curl inward to type a key. For a guitarist, they are what makes your fretting hand press a string down. For a rock-climber, they are what allows them to grip a rock.
A common source of discomfort and potential injury is when your flexor muscles out-develop your extensor muscles. As you might have guessed, these are muscles that expand. The trick is to develop your extensor muscles to keep up with your flexor muscles and maintain a kind of balance.
Climbers do this in several ways, but a popular one is using hand exercises with specialized rubber bands. You simply put these around your fingers then expand your hand to stretch against the band’s resistance. I’ve been using Expand-Your-Hand Bands, which I bought from Amazon for less than twenty dollars. This set gives you several different pairs of bands at various levels of resistance a little guide for how to perform the exercises.
After using these for the last month I can tell you that I’ve already felt the difference. My wrists don’t feel quite as tight and the thick muscles around my thumbs are much less sore and fatigued. I started out quite slowly with the weakest set of bands and just recently “promoted” myself to the next level up. I don’t think I’ll bother trying to get all the way to the toughest band since my extensor strength requirements aren’t the same as a rock climber.
Take good care of your wrists and hands. You don’t realize how precious they are until you hurt yourself and you’re out of commission for a while. I’m very thankful that in 25+ years of guitar playing and 17+ years of software development I’ve never really hurt myself too badly. I want to keep it that way. For me, paying attention to discomfort, stretching and now specifically developing muscles has been good insurance to make sure I stay in the game.