Arm Injury Update

Ouch!As many of you know, I hurt my arms this past spring by simultaneously cramming for the first performance with my new band (three days after joining it), preparing for my students’ Coffee Shop Jam (which happened two weeks later), and, in a fit of vanity, trying to do as many push-ups as I could at the gym. Writing that last bit hurts almost as much as my arms did.

I’m happy to say I’m almost all better. For those of you who are interested, here’s the story.

I first got symptoms in early May, during a rehearsal of Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover,” in preparation for the Spring Coffee Shop Jam (YouTube video here). I’d been practicing it like mad, and I remember my shoulders being tied in knots. I went for a bend during the solo, and felt a disconcerting twanging sensation in my left forearm.

By the time the Jam rolled around, my arm and shoulder were feeling pretty tight and sore. Normally I would have rested, but there was no way I was going to sit out of the Jam–I had a dozen students counting on me to back them up.

I limped my way through the show. A week later I went hiking, and the pressure of the daypack on my shoulders caused numbness and tingling in my left hand, and sharp pain up and down my arm. My right arm started hurting too.

I spent the hike totally horrified. My mind raced as it pursued one catastrophic scenario after another: I’d have to stop playing guitar. My rock climbing days were over. I had to wake up from my dream job and go work for Microsoft, using voice recognition software. My arms would shrivel to twigs and I’d be shunned by women for the rest of my days….

When I got home, I canceled most of my lessons and Googled hospitals until I found the Clinic for Performing Artists at Virginia Mason Hospital here in Seattle. Two miserable weeks later, I had my first appointment with Hans Van Buuren, PT, DPT, OCS, who’s responsible for bringing me back to health.

I had all these fears that I’d pinched a nerve or slipped a disk in my neck, but Hans’ diagnosis was quite simple: I’d increased my arm activity too quickly. That, combined with poor posture and too much muscle tension, had overloaded my body. I can’t remember the diagnostic term he used in my chart, but when I looked it up later, I discovered it meant “hurt arms.” I was disappointed–surely this catastrophe had a long, impressive-sounding Latin name worthy of the pain I was in.

As it turned out, Hans was right–it was just sore arms caused by overuse and too much muscle tension. Over the next five months, we used a biofeedback machine which registered muscle activity in my shoulders and back. He’d have me do simple exercises with an elastic band, with the goal of relaxing my trapezius muscles (on the tops of the shoulders) while using the small muscles between the shoulder blades. This, he said, was how I should be using my body when I played guitar: Shoulders down and back, and very relaxed, with just the lightest bit of tension in those muscles between the shoulder blades to keep them stable.

Take note, guitarists! We tend to tense our shoulders when we’re playing something difficult, but it’s bad for our bodies, and doesn’t help our playing. You can change this habit by catching yourself tensing up, and then reminding yourself to relax. Keep nagging yourself as you play until relaxing becomes second-nature.

It took several months to learn how to do this, and I didn’t see much progress for a long while. But finally, about four months into my treatment, I suddenly found myself being able to sleep on my side, sit at the computer, and play guitar for short periods without pain. What a relief.

Comments 8

  1. Whomever coined the term “No pain, no gain,” should be roundly thrashed, or at least sent to bed without his or her supper. ‘No struggle, no gain,’ or ‘no perseverance, no gain’ is more accurate. A couple of months ago, I pushed my voice further than I should when I had a sore throat, and dealt with almost two weeks of laryngitis that could have forced me to cancel some gigs. I knew better, but at the back of my mind was some insane voice that said I needed to work through the discomfort despite my voice teacher’s caveats.

    I’m glad you’re on the mend and have learned a lot from the experience. (This brings to mind a prayer I often utter: “Please let me just get through this successfully without it being a learning experience.)

  2. Glad to hear that you’re doing better. I always enjoy your newsletters. I came across something called the Alexander Technique that you may want to look into. Apparently it’s helpful with alleviating pain from performing by aligning the head, neck and spine.

    I also found a guitar method that incorporates methods from the Alexander Technique.

    Best wishes!

  3. Glad to hear you are feeling better. It is so easy to injure yourself without realizing it. I would like to say “here here” to Chris, on his recommendation of the Alexander Technique.

  4. Glad to hear you’re better and that your down time was so productive. I’ve been learning the guitar for about 18 months and I’m doing my first gig playing for some singers in a fortnight (people are paying money too, eeek!). A few weeks ago I was getting twangs in my left thumb from over practising a couple of songs filled with bar chords so I’ve been waiting with baited breath to hear what your ‘injury’ was and how you overcame it. Not sure that your ‘top tips’ apply to the thumb problem, but I’m certainly taking your experience on board.
    I love your writing style, by the way, – it’s instructive without being patronising or pontificating and it always makes me smile. Wish I lived nearer Seattle, I’d think I’d enjoy your lessons. Anyway, all the best!
    Sandy, Bristol, UK

  5. Thanks for your kind words, everyone, and for your recommendations, Chris. My singing teacher also recommended the Alexander technique.

    Sandy, I would recommend searching your area for a guitar teacher who focuses on ergonomics. Start calling around. Many older professional guitarists have been injured and have learned how to play safely the hard way, and have a lot to teach the rest of us.

  6. Hi – I really want to learn the ‘simple exercises with an elastic band’. Do you know of any diagrams/pictures on the web?

    I have tense neck and shoulders and am tyring to relax more.


  7. I do a lot of flatpicking and have been noticing pain in the arm that I pick with. The pain comes from just below the shoulder area with numbness in parts of my hand and finger. It feels like some nerve being pinched or damaged. Any suggestions?

    1. Boy, I hesitate to give any medical advice, but from my experience…

      1) Back off playing for a while
      2) Get help with your posture if necessary (play standing up, relax shoulders, consider playing a smaller guitar, etc.)

      Hope this helps,


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