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?

  • cant think of other than painkillers/beer
    – Anonymous
    Jan 13, 2011 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.
    – Bella
    Mar 2, 2011 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, 2012 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, 2012 at 16:45
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    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! Apr 24, 2013 at 19:28

14 Answers 14


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.

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.


I taught myself guitar. As a result, I started off with crappy technique that caused injury to my hands. In order to stop the pain, I went back to the beginning and analyzed my personal ergonomics and then changed my technique.

What I found worked for me was:

  • Practicing fretting notes cleanly: My fretting fingers are close to the frets and press as lightly as possible and still sound the note.
  • Eliminated full barre chords: I only play partial barre chords and never with the index finger across all the frets.
  • Practicing strumming notes cleanly: I hit the strings as softly as possible to still get the strums and picks to sound. I let the monitors or my amp do the work.
  • Play with my wrist straight: This was a huge help to reduce wrist pain. Sometimes my thumb is on the skunk stripe and sometimes it's on the edge of the fret board. I learned to do this by wearing a wrist brace until I could keep my wrist straight unconciously.
  • Play partial chords. I mainly fret only two or three strings in a chord and use open strings as much as possible.
  • Sit in a comfortable chair with my spine mostly straight and one leg elevated. The exact position varies from person to person. You need to sit and play and try different positions out that result in the least back and shoulder tension possible. This tension will show up in your hands, believe me.

Good luck!


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.

  • 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.
    – Bella
    Mar 2, 2011 at 23:15

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!


I am a 71 year old woman and have played guitar for years. I have had to change techniques over time as the inflammation and pain has gotten worse. I find that playing an acoustic with strings that are close to the fret board is easier for me than playing electric. Also light strings help a lot. I use Agustine light (blue)) Since I can't curve my index finger on my left hand enough to form a C or G7 chord I capo third fret and use the E formation when playing in G and the A formation when playing in C. You do have to use bar chords this way but I can manage that even though I can't fret all the strings across. I just play all the strings I can and it works OK. Since I play with my husband a lot his chords fill in the missing notes to make a fuller sound. You do need to know a lot of the chords that basic guitar players may not use but it is worth learning them to be able to play with other people in most keys.


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.


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


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'..


  • I had a similar experience in feeling like my hands were bigger than they were, even though they were not swollen.
    – user50691
    Apr 11, 2020 at 11:16

I am 55 years old and have developed these same isues over time. First and foremost a vist to your doctor. Clebrex (or miloxicam generic celebrex and not costly) has worked very well for me. Use good non greasy deep heat muscle rub on your hands and wrists before you play. Secondly, a little larger guitar neck like say a les paul verses a Gretsch or Fender as you do not have to close your hand as tight to make chords or hit those lead licks. Also, I am very much in agreement with lighter gauge strings. Ernie Ball Super slinkys or regular slinks seem to be much easier to fret. Last but not least, excersise your hands. Open them as far as you can and close them as far as you can as often as you can. I pray this helps. Keep at it and God Bless!


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.

You can try this stuff I take called "Zyflamend"...its an herbal and it really works. I had arthritis in both of my hands and not only couldnt play the guitar, but doing dishes and other kinds of housework were miserable. I went to a health food store I trust and the vitamin consultant told me about this. So I took it and in about two months my hands stopped hurting and my the swelling in my joints went away. It really does work and is not super expensive....try it!!


Maybe look into alternate tunings, slide. If you play electric and can afford it, try some effects eg: ambient guitar.

Don't worry about speed, in my humble opinion the world does not need any more "shredders"

Mine is very early stages, I can still do most things but will not get any faster or more accurate. We play a lot of 70's classic rock, it's mostly pentatonic in-the-box lead stuff & power chords. I have found that forgoing full 5/6-string bar chords makes life SO much better and easier.It's hard to know what advice to give you without knowing what kind of music you play or would like to play.

I am getting into effects and guitar tech. It's really fascinating and, while this is highly frowned upon by many serious musos, I do not believe there is anything wrong with using technology to compensate for a disability. We do it in almost every other area of life, why not music?


Different things work for different people. And the approach might depend on the type of arthritis you have. I am a professional and was diagnosed with Psoriatic Arthritis a few years ago. I can say it's very depressing. However I am very luck in that I do not have any joint damage. I am on auto immune meds for it and it seems to be in remission. That being said I don't do anything different. I now play the same as before, no new warm ups, no adjustments, same heavy string gauge, etc. But that is all thanks to the meds. I'm not pushing big Pharma or a political agenda here (having seen some posts that were deleted). I'm just sharing my story. I would follow the advice of your doctor w/r to hand exercises. I would NOT trust some generic statements like "Stretch More", "Do Yoga", "Tiger Balm on the finger joints", "Heating Pads". The reason is that (1) Tiger Balm and Bengay will probably corrode your finish and you don't want that, and (2) a lot of this type of advice is good for osteoarthritis which is just due to wear and tear in old age. You have RA and that is aggressive. I would think you'd want to avoid damage and regardless of the fact that warm ups , heating pads, bengay, and other things are good for your health in general that doesn't mean that playing guitar afterwards is!

You are going to have to manage the mental stress of losing chops as well and I can tell you from experience that cutting back on practice may be necessary yet could also have a mental effect that triggers RA flareups. For me, mental stress or anxiety is a leading factor in a recurrence or flareup. But the meds have been 95% effective in keeping that from happening. If your doctor says playing is not likely to cause or accelerate damage I would at least use lighter gauge strings, adjust technique so you barely have to press down (which you shouldn't). Perhaps string bending on heavy gauge strings is out as tat may really cause damage. The movement could be therapeutic but certain other factors may be damaging. If you could find a doctor who specializes in treating musicians you could bring in your ax and show techniques, identifying ones that are okay versus ones that could induce damage during a flareup.

Playing through pain is not a great idea but it is not always a sign of damage. In your case you really need to manage what you do. I'd look for a hand specialist and try to work up a regimen that is as safe as possible but allows you to progress. And if you are not on an RA med that works keep looking for one.