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I've been playing for decades. Every now and then I do something that causes a fingertip on my fretting hand to be extremely sensitive — to the point where the slightest pressure causes pain. I think I've finally figured out what's going on.

Every time I've had this pain, there's been a slight separation between the finger and the nail - not the entire nail, just that line where the nail separates from the finger moves back a tiny bit. I've resisted this conclusion, because that's not where the pain comes from - it comes from the fingertip! But every time I've had this problem, there has been a little fingernail separation.

So my question is, should I play through this, or wait until the pain goes away?

  • Can you describe the pain a bit more? I occasionally get pain in my fingertips where it feels like I've damaged or "dislocated" the fleshy bit and the string is now pushing into my tendons or ligaments or something. I wonder if that could be what you're referring to, though I haven't noticed anything going on with my nails. – Matthew Read Jul 4 '12 at 22:55
  • I've had that problem too! It feels to me (since it's so sudden and so excruciating) that it's some sort of nerve hypersensitivity. Just like you say, the slightest pressure.. even typing at a keyboard, causes pain. Mine is so severe when it happens, there's no way I'd be able to play guitar… but it usually only lasts… I don't know… half an hour? At the most an hour, I'd say. – Josh Fields Jul 5 '12 at 3:11
  • I just did that last night! Jabbed myself with the cat brush. ~24hrs later, pain is gone. Unless it's severe enough to cause you worry (psychosomatic amplification), you can tough it out. In fact, I think playing may help reduce pain faster by the creation of 'pleasant' sensations. FWIW, Apply with caution. :) – luser droog Jul 6 '12 at 0:31
  • Related quesyion: music.stackexchange.com/questions/3567/… – Ulf Åkerstedt Jul 7 '12 at 11:11

10 Answers 10

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Bear with me.

Fingernail and toenail seperation is extremely painful. But, there is no mandatory function from having them. What I mean is, if you did not have your fingernails, you would still be able to function 100% except maybe scratching your noggin.

In fact, I have had my two big toenails removed for pain reasons. The pain is gone and the toes are fine.

Now, where I'm going with this is, the pain you are experiencing is not doing any real, life-altering damage. If you can play through the pain, there is no reason not to. On the other hand (pun noted), there are things you can do like seeing a doctor about the root cause of the pain.

For me, I use medical-grade moisturizer on my picking hand for a different, but possibly related problem. As long as I don't use it on days I'm playing out, it's a non-issue.

I wish you well!

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I've been playing for a while now and had the same problem and I noticed that every once in a while the calluses fell off. Next time you have this problem, happens see if that's what is happening. Let me now if that works.

  • Welcome to Music SE! I've removed your email address per this section of the FAQ. You can place whatever you like on your user page, however. Thanks for the input! – American Luke Aug 2 '12 at 20:20
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Don't cut your fingernails too short. Only cut down the white part of your nail. In fact, leave a little bit of the white nail. This will stop this recurring problem for good!

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This crops up with me at the strangest times. I don't feel that I did anything unusual to start the process. It is painful to play and I am no doctor but I know what works for me. After I do this, it relieves a lot of the discomfort and helps the separation heal faster. The tiny separation of the nail is not causing that much pain. What is causing the intense pain is the additional skin buildup just below the nail that is basically extra material that, when you press on your finger tip, you push this extra material into the slight separation keeping it from healing quickly and causing the additional pain. The extras material seems to build up over time. Not sure why. So what I do is take an exacto knife and carefully lift and remove the extra layer of skin buildup. I have to use considerable magnification to see what I am doing. It is really not painful at all just removing this extra layer. With the layer gone, there is no extra thickness there to press into the nail separation. Way less pain and it heels quickly after I do this. This works for me and is just based on my experience over the years.

partial removal - and after complete

enter image description here

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Not a direct answer to your question but a suggestion for the next time this happens.

I get this too. I've even had to cancel gigs due to this problem (don't worry. There were no riots). But I recently discovered something just a few days ago that will allow me to play through it. Just take some contact anesthetic like orajel or similar and press some up under the nail about a half hour before playing. I just used orajel because I saw some in the medicine cabinet the last time I had this problem. It worked quite well. Now I'm going to see if there's anything stronger but the orajel got me though it.

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I have a tip for when this kind of pain happens. I have exactly the same problem, generally on fingers 2 and 3, and it is very painful! It prevents me from playing, especially pull-offs and bends.

MY SOLUTION : While it does not completely remove the pain, I scotch-tape my nail and my finger together, using a normal scotch tape cut in half to make it slimmer. I go around the finger for 2-3 laps, using maybe 2 inch tapes. It makes me able to play by keeping the nailbed and the nail firmly together. On these days, I won't bend and I will play carefully, but I'm able to give my lessons all day. I change the tape often.

Usually, the problems lasts less than a week, but it comes up often!

I really have to be careful not to cut my nail too short, I keep them unconfortably long but it makes the problem come up less often. It really sucks though, I'm thinking about removing the nails completely via surgery.

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I heard Stevie used superglue when that happened. Anyone else hear that? I figured nail glue might be less toxic.

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I don't think there is enough info in your description to evaluate the problem. Is it really due to nail separation or something else? The correlation you mention could be completely coincidental and not causal. I have been playing for decades and can describe a few different fretting hand sensitivities.

(1) If you over practice on the electric (short nail or not) and you are doing a lot of string bending you may pull the finger nail away from the flesh a little. Once that happens it will be harder to practice without pain for a while but once it heals your finger should be tougher and not likely to experience this again unless you (a) stop for a while then start up again or (b) increase your practice time thus causing more stress on the flesh. This type of "injury" may become slightly infected and playing without bending can cause pain.

I must admit, when I was younger that kind of pain felt good so I played through it. I don't think there is any long term damage from that but I couldn't tell you for sure.

(2) One the classical guitar the strings are quite a bit thicker and proper technique has our fretting fingers right up on the tip (about 90 degree angle from the finger board). It can happen that one unfortunately hits a nerve ending in the tip of the finger causing a very "shocking" type of shooting pain through the finger. This can get worse over time. Sometimes a callus develops over the nerve and instead of protecting it the callus stabs the nerve every time your finger touches the string the wrong way. Since this is an example of a nerve getting pressed I'd back off until it gets better. Perhaps don't stop practicing but change the angle of attack for the fretting hand. If you don't find a way to stop this you could cause permanent nerve damage. Perhaps numbness or constant shooting pain (not sure).

(3) Another possibility is dried cracked skin on a callus. Here the string can dig into the wound or just put pressure on it causing pain.

(4) Since you claimed that the nail is always separated from the flesh when it happens it could be that the rest of your finger has become sensitive to touch because of the wound. I can't visualize how as I'm not a doctor, just speculating.

(5) Possible arthritis flare up. I have psoriatic arthritis and when it flares up the fingers become hyper sensitive to any touch. Of course this is usually on the joint and affects bar chords more than playing notes on the tip but I find that there is a sort of non-locality to pain during these flare ups. Playing through arthritis pain is a double edged sword. Movement is good for the joints but overdoing it I suspect could cause joint damage.

It is not a good idea for anyone to tell you would can or should "play through it". That is bad advise without really seeing your hands. If it's a persistent thing you should see a doctor. I share my personal experiences with you in the above comments.

Numbness and shooting pain = stop for a while, or back off, adjust your playing

Stinging wound pain = watch out that it doesn't get worse, avoid techniques that make it worse.

As for not cutting the nails back? I cut mine very far back, every day. I don't want to see a hair thickness of nail beyond the skin. I will push the skin underneath the nail back a little and either cut or file them back. And I don't have the problem you are describing on a regular basis. Only if I cannot manage to practice, the fingers get "soft", then I go back to extreme practice sessions. My fingers are used to it, and yours will be too in time.

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This is collation of what I felt were the best answers. First, do not attempt any of the auto–surgery approaches listed above. Instead, start with a visit to a manicurist. Explain the details of your problem. An experienced manicurist will definitely have seen more fingernail problems than one could possibly imagine. After your fingernails have been correctly trimmed, use a super-glue based first-aid brush-on liquid on the delineation section between the nail and underlying tissue. Use a nail brush daily to remove dead tissue and stimulate the strengthening of the connective tissue. A weekly trimming and a monthly visit to your new found manicurist will aid in the healing and strengthening process. Restrict practice sessions to no more than 45 minutes, with a 30-minute rest in-between. If you are using steel strings, switch off to classical strings for 6 weeks until the healing process has completed.

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Here is an image 2 1/2 hours after I removed the extra layer of hardened skin from just under my nail. See my previous post from today 10/29/19

enter image description here

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