Piano Q&A: Injuries at the piano and avoiding tendonitis
Today’s question is about preventing hand injuries at the piano – things like carpal tunnel and tendonitis.
Though this is probably obvious, I want to disclaim that I’m not a health professional of any kind. I’ve never had any hand injuries, nor have my students – so that’s where I’m coming from with my advice. But always consult your doctor.
Let’s get to it!
Injuries at the piano
It’s a good idea to be proactive about hand pain, because it’s much harder to correct a problem if you’ve already developed it. Prevention is the easiest way to go!
There are a bunch of different factors that can play into injuries – genetics, lifestyle, consistency, and so on. I’ll share some of my tips with you as we explore these topics.
Fatigue versus pain
Firstly, there’s a big difference between your hands getting fatigued, versus actually being in pain. Hand fatigue feels a lot like how your arms do if you do a bunch of push-ups – tired, but not hurting/pinching/pulling.
Hand fatigue is fairly normal if you’re working on something demanding, and usually just requires a little rest to improve (whether that be a minute, an hour, or a day, depending on the degree of fatigue).
Hand pain is different. If you feel any sharp or unusual pains, don’t push through it! This is a big red flag that you need to scale back.
Injuries at the piano – my band
So I’ve never personally had any hand issues, but the guitarist of my band, and to some extent the drummer (my husband) have.
Exhibit A is the guitarist. The first strike against him is that carpal tunnel runs in his family, so there’s some genetic susceptibility there. The second strike is that, at the time he developed a problem, he was playing in three different bands, one of them requiring some really intense bass playing. The third strike is that he had a job using a computer all day, and one of his favorite pastimes was playing video games.
Suffice to say, he started experiencing some pretty bad carpal tunnel issues to the point where he had to give up music almost entirely for about a year. Not a great situation to be in as a musician!
He managed to rebound from it quite well by doing a variety of hand exercises, using specific arm bands, getting acupuncture, and most importantly – resting in order to heal.
Exhibit B is my husband. He’s a good example of what can happen to the average person if they go from not playing their instrument at all, to playing for hours at a time – especially difficult music.
Michael doesn’t generally have issues with tendonitis, and no one in his family has it. He just messed up his forearm by overdoing it on the drums, and “pushing through the pain”.
His road to recovery only took a month or two – he bought an arm band to help with the pressure, and took some time off drumming.
The theme of these two stories is pretty simple: don’t overdo it, and don’t ignore signs of pain! Again, correcting a problem is much more difficult than not developing a problem in the first place.
So how do you not develop a problem in the first place?
This is more than I can get into in this video, but there are all kinds of hand and wrist stretches you can do to prevent tendonitis or carpal tunnel from developing. In my short e-book “How To Practice Piano (And Like It)”, there are some illustrated stretches that you can try (available on the PianoTV website). It’s also as simple as a quick Google search.
I like to do yoga, and one thing I’ve really noticed is it’s been great for developing some strength and flexibility in my wrists. Overall strength and flexibility will go a long way to help with piano pain issues – everything from wrist pain to posture problems.
If I’m practicing something demanding, I take frequent breaks. Once my hands hit a point of fatigue where they start to tense up, I either switch to something simple for a bit, or I take a couple minutes to breathe and rest.
Tension is a major cause of hand/arm pain, and it’s best to keep them as relaxed and fluid as possible when you’re practicing. If you’re stiffening up and developing “claw hands”, scale back a bit.
Aside from really short intermittent breaks when I’m practicing, I’ll also take longer breaks. If I spend 1 ½ hours practicing, I might divide that into 2 or 3 sessions spread out throughout the day. For me, it’s more mentally and physically effective to do this, instead of doing it all at once.
Consistency is also really important for avoiding injury. Don’t be like my husband and go from 0 to 100. If you usually only practice for 30 minutes a day and suddenly try to have a 3 hour session, you’re more likely to push yourself too hard and go overboard. But going from 30 minutes to an hour (or hour and a half) shouldn’t cause any problems, especially if that time is divided throughout the day.
My way of being consistent is that I generally practice in 30-minute blocks, and then take a break. Whether I do 1 or 4 blocks in a day doesn’t seem to matter too much. But if I’m used to doing 30 minutes and suddenly do 2 hours in one session, I can really feel it mentally and physically.
If I’m working on something easy, on the other hand, I can go for hours with no issue. So the degree you’re pushing yourself really does matter.
One more thing I want to talk about in regards to avoiding hand injuries is general health. Things like fluid retention and inflammation can make you much more susceptible to injury.
To avoid fluid retention, it’s important to stay hydrated. It might sound counter-intuitive, but staying hydrated helps flush out excess fluid in your body. And to avoid fluid retention in the first place, it’s useful to be mindful of sodium consumption.
I can always tell what my salt consumption is like based on how my wedding band fits. That’s my own personal gauge. Of course, temperature effects it too, but if I’m really warm and my band can still slide on and off fairly easily, then I know I’m not retaining a bunch of fluid.
Reducing inflammation is something we could talk about for hours. But to keep it simple, fruits, veggies and spices are very anti-inflammatory, so that’s something to be mindful of.