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If you’ve ever had one of your thumbs suddenly start to hurt while playing guitar, you know how disconcerting it can be.
You might wonder if your thumb hurts playing guitar at times, whether there’s anything you can do to fix it.
If your thumb hurts playing guitar, it could be your form or because you’ve overworked the digit. Stretching, rest, ice, tape, and changes to form should be enough to fix thumb joint pain when playing guitar. If it isn’t, you might want to consider seeing a doctor.
Thumb pain is a serious concern and it can limit the amount of time you play — and that’s never a great thing. Let’s examine some of the most common causes of thumb pain, how to deal with them, and when you might need more than just basic solutions.
Thumb Joint Pain Playing Guitar
First, let’s be clear: The idea of “no pain, no gain” isn’t right when it comes to musical instruments.
While playing guitar can definitely tax the muscles and ligaments that support your thumbs and other fingers, the result should be some soreness or mild discomfort.
If there is actual pain, especially if it persists, that’s a sign that something’s wrong. Listen to those signals or you could end up doing long term damage to your wrist, hands, or fingers and thumbs.
With that out of the way, having some thumb pain, especially in the fretting hand, is fairly common among beginners. While some of that definitely has to do with the thumb needing to build more strength, there’s more happening, also.
If the problem is just with the strength of the thumb, the sensation will feel like your thumb feeling progressively less steady and stable when playing. If there is pain, the issue probably has to do with your technique, especially with how you use the thumb on your fretting hand.
Fretting Hand Thumb Hurts Playing Guitar
What to do with the thumb of your fretting hand is a very common question for beginning guitarists. The ideal technique, which is taught in particular to classical guitarists, involves planting the knuckle in the middle of your thumb in the middle of the back of the guitar neck.
Your fretting hand fingers should be curved so that just the fingertips contact the strings unless you move your index finger to make a barre chord shape.
This gives your hand a wide range of motion. The proper way to hold the neck is to use the thumb as a brace or stabilizer, rather than using the thumb to put pressure on the back of the neck.
You can see a classical guitar player use this technique even as they play past the neck/body joint. This video shows what that looks like.
For many players, especially beginners, this is a difficult concept to grasp. The tendency is to use the thumb to squeeze against the back of the neck, which new players think will help them hold down the strings more effectively.
In reality, doing that strangles much of the potential sound out of the strings and is a recipe for chronic pain or other problems with your thumb.
Not everyone hold the neck in the “proper” classical style, and that means players’ hand position on the will affect how the thumb rests on the neck. Some players go so far as to wrap their hand the entire way around the neck, using their thumb to hold down notes on the low E string.
While this is a time honored technique used by blues guitarists for more than a century, you need to be careful if you do that. You run the risk of squeezing your thumb too tightly in a different direction, causing similar problems.
Dealing With Fretting Hand Thumb Pain
One of the first techniques players learn to deal with fretting hand fatigue and discomfort is a good place to start, because it can help stretch your hand and prevent further pain from developing.
When you start to feel your fretting hand get weak or feel discomfort when playing a chord, take your hand off the guitar and place it, palm down, on a flat surface. To stretch, spread your fingers apart while keeping your hand in contact with the surface.
This position helps expand and strengthen your hand’s ability to stretch and also helps keep the tendons and ligaments loose and flexible.
Just stretching isn’t enough, though. If you’re still using your thumb incorrectly, then you will likely still be experiencing thumb pain, even with some stretching.
In general, the muscles that support your fretting hand thumb should be relaxed when you’re playing guitar. The forearm muscles that support your fingers, which are much stronger, are what should be pressing down on the strings.
Another way to think of it: While it looks like you’re squeezing the strings and neck of the guitar between your thumb and fingers, that isn’t exactly what’s happening. You’re pressing the strings down on the fret board, and all your thumb does is support your hand in the correct position.
The squeezing pressure comes from your fingers, which are moved by larger muscles than your thumb.
Try this as an exercise. Put your fretting hand on the guitar and make a chord shape, but don’t press down on the strings.
Instead, play the strings muted, and slowly start to squeeze them down until you hear a clear chord with no muted strings. That should give you a better idea of how much pressure it takes to get the strings to sound.
You might be surprised at how little pressure it really takes. While you’re doing this, though, be sure that the pressure is coming from your fingers and that your thumb is just supporting your fretting hand.
Playing Hand Thumb Hurts Playing Guitar
When it comes to your playing hand, thumb pain should be a lot easier to avoid than with the fretting hand. That’s because you have a few options for how to use the thumb on your playing hand, so you can choose the one that’s easiest for you.
Classical players will use the thumb to alternate with other fingers to play individual strings, though it is less frequently used than the index and middle fingers. Other fingerstyle guitar players will use the thumb to play the bass strings while using other fingers to play higher strings.
Flat pick players grip the pick between thumb and index finger, which has the potential to cause some thumb pain, depending on how tightly you’re holding it. In general, you should be holding things more loosely than you might first think, and working on not gripping things too tightly will help a lot when it comes to reducing pain.
Dealing With Thumb Pain When Playing Guitar
First, as tempting as it might be to just play through the pain, if you find any part of your hand or wrist hurting when playing guitar, you should take a break. One of the most common causes of pain in the thumb, hand, fingers, wrist, and forearm is overexertion.
If you ignore that pain, you risk doing real damage to joints, tendons, and ligaments. If you find your thumb hurting while playing, stop for at least 15 minutes to allow your muscles to rest.
You can stretch or do other exercises to help improve your endurance and grip strength. Another option is to slowly build up how long you play, adding five to 10 minutes to your playing sessions as your stamina increases.
One way to prevent pain, as I mentioned above, is to make sure your fretting hand is in the correct position while you play. Taking the time to be conscientious about this will turn that position into a habit, which will help keep you from getting hurt.
As I’ve said a few times now: You don’t need to squeeze the neck in a death grip. Squeezing harder won’t make your guitar sound any louder, and, in fact, it might even hurt your tone when it comes down to it.
Putting too much pressure on the neck usually happens when players are not just using their thumb to support their fretting hand, but are using it to help sound notes.
It’s an understandable impulse, because it seems like using the thumb should help with pressing down strings.
Lowering A Guitars Action To Help With Thumb Pain
If you’re finding that a little pressure isn’t enough to make a chord play clearly on your guitar, there might be a problem other than technique or form that you’ll have to deal with.
If a guitar’s action is too high, it can cause a number of issues, including making a guitar much more difficult to play. The string tension, and therefore how much pressure it takes to push down a string, also increases with thicker strings.
To check a guitar’s action, you need a precise ruler. Hold the guitar in a playing position and use the ruler to measure the distance between the bottom of the low E string and the top of the 12th fret.
Repeat that measurement for the high E string, as well.
In general the action should be between 6/64″ or 2.4 mm on the low E string and 4/64″ or 1.6mm on the high E string for electric guitars. For acoustic guitars, a good rule of thumb is 7/64″ or 2.8 mm on the low E and 5/64″ or 2 mm on the high E.
There is some variation possible, of course, but too much higher than those figures and you could find your guitar quite hard to play.
You aren’t likely to actually cut your fingers on strings when the action is too high, but it can definitely feel like you might, especially if you don’t have thick playing calluses yet.
You can lower the action of your guitar by adjusting the saddle or the nut, or by adjusting the truss rod, depending on how much relief is in the neck.
Thumb Pain Gets Worse Playing Guitar
Anyone who’s over 30 already knows that your body slowly starts to get stiffer as you age, especially as the cartilage in your joints is worn away. Thumb arthritis is common, and that can limit your ability to play guitar, both by compromising your strength and causing pain.
Basic exercises have proven effective in the short and medium term, though, so that is worth considering. That path might not improve strength, but it has been shown to reduce pain.
Pain killers like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, known as NSAIDs, can help, but be aware of side effects caused by taking too many, as well as of masking pain by taking too many.
Using a splint might also help, and that can also keep your thumb in the correct position when playing.
If you find your thumb consistently hurting when playing guitar, it’s worthwhile to go to the doctor to get checked out. While conditions like thumb arthritis are possible, so are other causes like tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Only a doctor can tell you what the cause of the pain is, though.
Having thumb pain when playing guitar is a pretty common occurrence. It can be caused by anything from poor playing form to an underlying issue, though, so you need to be aware of when you’re feeling that pain and how long it lasts.
Fleeting instances of pain or a bit or discomfort and tightness is probably normal, and a sign that you’re building strength in your hand. More sustained pain, or pain that spikes suddenly, is more concerning.
Look at your fretting and playing hand technique, and be sure your guitar is set up properly. If none of those steps help with the pain, you should seriously consider seeing a doctor.
After all, reducing that pain means you can play more guitar.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.