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I have been playing guitar for 12 years now and I'm 28.
I am under treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis (R.A.) and was wondering if anyone who has R.A., or other pain in their hands, has any approaches they have used to reduced their pain when playing?
Do you recommend a particular brand/gauge of strings, warm-ups or anything else that has helped you?

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cant think of other than painkillers/beer –  Anonymous Jan 13 '11 at 21:46
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I knew a Jazz guy who's Arthritis got so bad that he had to periodically go into the bathroom during gigs to run his hands under warm water to stop them seizing up. It seemed to work for him at the time, he would go back and carry on playing, i saw him do this at literally tens of gigs, when i was a wee chappie. –  DRL Mar 2 '11 at 23:09
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I just got arthritis a year ago in hands. I liked to play fast and hard licks. Now my days of this are going to be gone. I really must admit it feels hopeless some days. I am more of a lead guitarist and this will make me more chord oriented. The warm water technique seems to work. For the short term. Nothing like being pain free though... –  user2573 Jul 3 '12 at 6:27
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Also, make sure that your doctor is aware that you need to be able to play and that you know your options for treatment. Talking to a few specialists in this case is not a bad idea at all. –  Babu Jul 3 '12 at 16:45
    
I've talked to my instructor about this because my dad is a guitar player with arthritis. His advice, which seems sound is to play almost every day. It will help keep your joints moving. But also, don't over do it on any given day. Practice often but easy. Also Motrin/Ibuprofen reduces swelling in addition to pain relief. Good luck! –  cadmium Apr 24 '13 at 19:28
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8 Answers

Other than alcohol?

I would suggest you pick up a slide. On an electric guitar, the stress to your fingers shouldn't be too bad and you can still play some pretty cool sounding stuff.

Here's an example.

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The slide is actually a really good idea; if the arthritis gets so bad that you cant fret notes, a slide will still allow you to play guitar and be creative. –  DRL Mar 2 '11 at 23:15
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have a look at Jamie Andreas's Guitar Principles. This is a way of fundamentally changing the way you approach the guitar which results in reduced stress and tension when you play. Also don't be scared to use lighter gauges - Richard Thompson uses 8's on his strat and I haven't heard anyone complain about his tone. Finally, take heart from people like django reinhardt who have made world changing music despite their disability.

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Sorry to hear that your playing is impacted. I don't have R.A., but I have a number of wrist, shoulder, and arm problems. Here are some things that I have found useful for my situation - I hope they can help you with yours:

  • Electric guitars. Electrics in general have lower string tension than acoustics.
  • Light strings. The lighter the string, the less effort it takes to play. I personally like Ernie Ball Super Slinkys MF, but those are .009s. There are .008s available, too.
  • Relaxed posture. Tension in other parts of your body will create pain in your wrists, arms, shoulders, and hands.
  • Respect your pain. Pain is a message from your body telling you to change something, not a challenge to be conquered through might. I will never forget the time I decided to "play through" an aching little finger joint and ended up not being able to play for a week afterwards.
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I have arthritis in both hands, but mainly had pain in my fretting hand. It felt like my hand was on fire. I've had it about a year, warming up is like learning to play again. I went to the doctor and there is finger exercises to help improve mobility and speed, but the medication they prescribed is working wonders. I've been taking it for less than a week and it is really kicking in. It's called *SULINDAC 200 MLG. pill, twice a day. I'm playing with .52-.10 gauge string, speed picking and power chords.

  • Just be aware that taking any medication has it's risks and possible side effects. Please do your research and hopefully be in a better and more informed position before considering anything.
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I have arthritis in my fingers and the first finger will not bend very far on both hands without pain. Classical play position is easier because the fingers are more staight and the wrist more underneath the neck of the guitar. My doctor suggested that playing more would be almost a therapy with anti inflamatory drugs. I am reluctant to take these tablets as I believe the same drugs killed her with an aggressive stomach cancer.

Electric playing with bar cords is not painful. Look at Keith Richards fingers.

One thing I do notice is that I moved from North Yorkshire in UK to Switzerland (which is very dry) in 2010 and my fingers are rarely painful in Switzerland. One famous guitar player I heard had moved to Australia as arthritis is rarely painful there I am told. So yes, warm and dry and gently keep playing. If you don't use it, you lose it.

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great discussion. I have Multiple Sclerosis which also makes my left hand numb at times (for days at a time). I have found using "open tuning" helps tremendously. I can make beautiful sounds with fewer fingers. I also have laid my guitar in my lap and play similar to a steel-slide guitar. I use my strongest finger to hold down the fret; I use light/ bronze strings which give my guitar a beautiful mountain harp sound. But I do try to play for shorter periods but several times a day.

also, Aspercream works wonders. I put it on and then wear kid-leather gloves over my hands for half an hour or so. This seems to have a longer lasting effect that the warm water trick.

Hope this helps!

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Do you use "tapping" in your solos (as introduced by Eddie Van Halen) ?

I don't have pain but sometimes I get cramp in my hands during a long gig, I have found that using a lot of tapping seems to need less tension in my hands and generally less movement to get fast riffs and licks going.

Each finger only holds a note for a short time, and rarely would you be bending a string like this so there's less stess on the fingers in general (or at least, that's what I find)

This is on electric guitar with fairly low action ands size 10 strings. You can do it on acoustic as well but it's not so easy as the strings are mormally tighter.

If the Van Halen sound frightens you off, I should point out you don't have to sound like EVH with this technique, it can be used slowly and smoothly too.

Just a thought. Must be pretty frustreating for you - I hope you find a solution

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I have been playing guitar, mostly classical style, for about 50 years. Until my first attack of rheumatoid arthritis I was able to play fairly advanced music at a reasonably good level for an amateur. Such pieces as Albeniz' Leyenda, a dozen of the Venezuelan Waltzes by Lauro, various other pieces by Tarrega, etc.. The first thing I noticed in my case was that my hands always feel like they are encased in latex gloves or perhaps you might imagine that the fingers are attached to some rubber bands whose tension you must overcome to move at all. Therefore, the first facet to go is agility, and with it, speed of play.

The next facet to go is structural and will vary among us all depending on whether or not you are able to arrest the progress of the disease. In my case the ability to curl the fingers properly on the left hand, especially (in my own case) the index finger kills the ability to play certain chords. I can reach almost any note by itself but often suffer when trying to combine notes which used to be very elementary for me (even a basic position 1 "C" chord is hard for me at times.)

I have decided to 'get real' about the level of music I am able to play. I still play every day but I have much lower expectations of what I can bring out, and I select much simpler pieces than I did in my prime. If you play classical I suggest playing studies and classical adaptations of popular music which are often easier than concert type pieces. For rock, folk, singalong, I think many other contributors here have given some real nice thoughts.

Good luck and don't let it bring you down; I almost made that mistake but now I realize that 'you have to be alive to complain'..

Ken

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