Tips for hand pain while finger picking

Shaw

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This one is a bit personal, but know I can't be the only one to experience this, so I thought I'd ask for other people's experiences and advice.

I moved from guitar to ukulele a few years ago and primarily finger pick a tenor. I had a medical issue that has resulted in joint pain and decreased mobility. Over the last few months, 10-15 minutes of finger picking leaves me with hand pain and even locking joints. This means I'm playing less and ending my sessions frustrated. I think a significant portion of this issue could be attributed to bad habits from being self taught, especially resting my pinky finger on the sound board to stabilize my hand. That's what locks up first.

Any tips? Relearn and revise my finger picking style? Embrace it as part of aging (though I'm only in my 30s) and move toward strumming more and picking less?
 
Normally I would say if you’re in your 30’s, finger picking should NOT cause any real pain. But you said you had a medical condition, and a doctor I am not. After your medical condition, do other things make your fingers hurt or just playing the uke?

I think a general rule we can all benefit to remember is to play lighter. Only press, strum, pluck, etc. as much as necessary and no harder. At the very least it wastes energy and in the worst case it can create tension and pain.

If you’re locking your picking hand pinky ramrod straight onto the soundboard/pressing in with force, and it hurts that’s probably a good place to start troubleshooting. Try to lightly touch and if that still hurts, see if you can get away with no pinky touching (but some people can be really thrown off without that touch reference point).

I hope you can get this figured out! I’ll add the generic ask your doctor what they think about this and please don’t take my random musings as medical advice…!
 
I appreciate the response and I'll pay attention to the force and see if I can get away with a lighter touch and extend my playing sessions. The pinky rest is how I have done guitar finger picking since I was a teenager, so I'm finding it a hard habit to break.

As for the medical condition, I won't get too deep into it except to say that I have a rare chronic condition that affects all my bones and joints and this is only one of many annoyances that come with it. I'm lucky to have a phenomenal medical care team and people would never know by looking at me. I can get through most physical tasks without much trouble, but since music is a source of pleasure for me I am finding this particularly frustrating.
 
Coincidently, I have just had two sessions on fingerpicking this past week, even though I am mostly a thumbpicker. One was a session from Stu Fuchs for his Patreon page, and the other was our regular ukulele group bringing in an instructor who covered it.

Stu mentioned that the finger motion is mostly from the knuckle closest to the wrist and not from bending the knuckles closer to the finger tips. The other instructor pointed out that the hand position is different than strumming and needs to be much more perpendicular to the strings so the hand is bent at the wrist toward the pinky (partly achieved by the headstock being higher than the soundhole). I checked and that is what Stu does on both.

Do not take these as pointers so much as the need to revisit your technique. I notice that touching the pinky makes both these techniques much more difficult. So perhaps some video watching or more formal instruction may help.
 
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Stu mentioned that the finger motion is mostly from the knuckle closest to the wrist and not from bending the knuckles closer to the finger tips.
I'll second this. My teacher is all about moving from the big joints of the hand and springing back naturally. So you're not "picking" where there is a stiff connection with the string, but a gentle connection with the tiny joint at the fingertip being flexible and springy, but the movement is driven from the large joints at the junction with the rest of the hand. He calls it "coming down from paradise to do a good deed then returning to paradise", which sounds funny but if you think of it as engaging only as long as it takes to cause the string to vibrate and returning to neutral, naturally, it helps.

It may also take a lot of unlearning to try to allow your hands to play again. My teacher's mentor had another student who was a professional classical guitarist who had to stop playing because his hand could no longer work. My teacher's mentor showed him how to change to this method, he took six months unlearning and relearning, and he is now playing again professionally with no pain.

I am not an expert. I cannot say that this will help. I can only offer it as a possibility that could allow you to play again. Best of luck.
 
I have rheumatoid arthritis (which is an auto-immune disease), so I am no stranger to joint pain and mobility/flexibility issues, especially in the fingers and wrists. I’m primarily a thumb picker, so playing doesn’t generate too much pain in my right hand. However, the maneuvers and positions required of my fretting hand are particularly hard on my left wrist and fingers. What has allowed me to continue playing ukulele (so far) has been switching to multiple, shorter playing sessions (10 minutes each), rather than one long one. I also find that my hands appreciate it if I take the time to do some gentle stretching exercises prior to playing. Hope you are able to find a workable solution for your own situation, Shaw. I feel your pain ~ both literally and figuratively. :)
 
I would not rest the pinky on the instrument. I studied classical guitar for a good number of years and would reiterate the advice to keep the hand more perpendicular to the strings. Maybe adjust the position of the uke to mimic classical guitar technique and raise one leg with a stool. Muscle injuries can occur with any number of instruments and generally the advice is to use a warm compress on the affected area before and after playing and employ a warm up session exercise. Also, examine the force extended to fingerpick and pick a soft string with good flexibility. Right now I like DR moonbeams as the string has good tone and is soft and light on my fingers. I do not like aquilas, they are good quality, but I find them thick and stiff. I would recommend researching basic classical guitar position, as well as dealing with muscle injuries of musicians and you will find a wealth of material. Good luck.
 
I’m primarily a thumb picker, so playing doesn’t generate too much pain in my right hand.

Maybe look at another similar style like flatpicking and fiddle music, which use a pick instead of fingers to pick the notes.
This is so interesting to me! My physical limitation is with a thumb tendon injury from years back, and I had to switch from mandolin with the flatpick to ukulele to see if I could even play it (since mandolin is painful pretty quickly), I try to use as little thumb work as possible, although I sure do feel it when I've got a piece that alternates between C and G a lot! As a result, these are not suggestions that would have ever occurred to me, but yes, if your thumb isn't a problem, perhaps these methods could help, too.
I would not rest the pinky on the instrument.
I should imagine that this could be an added source or tension in your picking hand, never being able to return to a completely relaxed state after engaging each note. Not to imply that it's incorrect technique, necessarily, but that it could be adding unnecessary stress to your joints.
 
I don't think anyone has mentioned yet the role of the instrument itself.

I don't know if you have access to other ukuleles, (at a store, through friends?), but you might find that a different nut width, or a radius if your ukulele doesn't have one, or a different neck, or a different sized ukulele might help your left hand, at least. I'm guessing that your medical problem would have an impact on both of your hands.

Have you experimented with different strings? Some are easier to fingerpick than others, in my experience with my cranky fingers, anyway.

You might also experiment with playing with a strap vs. not playing with a strap. (Not sure is you use a strap now.)

If your fingers are getting painful and locking up, you might also check to see if your forearm is tightening up as well. That might need some attention as well.

I really want to be playing tenors, but my fingers insist that I play concerts. But fortunately, there are some really amazing concert ukuleles out there, and when set up well, they can be a joy to play and sound fantastic, (if you ignore my playing abilities, LOL.)
I've learned to be very picky about the nut width, string spacing, neck shape, radius, low action, and so on. It makes a big difference for me.

Just wanted to add the idea of looking at that kind of thing as well.
 
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Thank you all for these thoughtful responses. These are giving me a lot of food for thought and I'm going to do some experimenting. At a minimum, I need to unlearn and relearn some technique. I'm going to read all these again when I have a quieter moment tonight and approach my playing differently this evening.
 
Diclofenac gel is sold OTC under a variety of brand names. It really works well for my arthritis and injuries. When my fingers started locking, or triggering, I received a cortisone shot from my doctor that not only stopped them locking up, it also was great for overall pain.

Compression gloves help some people, also alternating hot and cold. You might look into seeing about a referral to an occupational therapist, especially one that specializes in musicians.
 
My right thumb joint gets very sore after picking for a long period. Part is arthritis, part repetitive motion and part is position.

I tried keeping my pinky in touch witht he soundboard when I pick, but it's rather short, and very hard for me to play this way.

I did a test by planting my pinky on a tabletop and making picking motions with as close to the position used on my tenors. Thumb alone. Three & four finger. In every case, my hand tired very quickly with my pinky planted compared to picking with my hand floating free. My thumb was not as stressed and my other fingers were much happier.

So, I pick with my hand floating. Sure, sometimes I find myself plucking the wrong string, or my hand is not aligned quite right. But that's a price I'm happy to pay to keep my fingers less prone to hurt.

It helps me if I stretch my hands before playing and I warm up with a couple of exercises. Gel Gould the pianist used to soak his hands in warm, just shy of hot, water before every performance to loosen his tendons and joints up. I find that shaking my hands out when they start tighten up helps. Not too vigorously. Just enough to loosen them. It's also a good idea to cool down after you've played a long while.

My orthopedic doctor recommends Ibuprofen as a good anti-inflammatory. He also said studies are showing that a 50/50 Ibuprofen/acetaminophen combination acts better than just one or the other as an anti-inflammatory. Your stomach may rebel if you take a lot of ibuprofen, especially on an empty stomach.

Lots of exercises, and stretches online. I particularly like the Mayo Clinic Arthritis exercises.

These hand exercises for musicians are from a Wisconsin PBS station program "Getting Fit With Cassy":
 
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I'm afraid that I'm going to suggest that this is 100% about your medical condition.
I'm a bit of an old fart now (late 50's), who sometimes busks for 4-5 hours a day, without hand pain from finger picking.

I'm not a Doctor, yet I'm going to suggest that your issues are about inflamation and general nutrient deficiencies.
 
Thank you all for these thoughtful responses. These are giving me a lot of food for thought and I'm going to do some experimenting. At a minimum, I need to unlearn and relearn some technique. I'm going to read all these again when I have a quieter moment tonight and approach my playing differently this evening.
Another thought. Lower your tension by tuning in F rather than G. You can still play tabs the same way if you use them.
 
This one is a bit personal, but know I can't be the only one to experience this, so I thought I'd ask for other people's experiences and advice.

I moved from guitar to ukulele a few years ago and primarily finger pick a tenor. I had a medical issue that has resulted in joint pain and decreased mobility. Over the last few months, 10-15 minutes of finger picking leaves me with hand pain and even locking joints. This means I'm playing less and ending my sessions frustrated. I think a significant portion of this issue could be attributed to bad habits from being self taught, especially resting my pinky finger on the sound board to stabilize my hand. That's what locks up first.

Any tips? Relearn and revise my finger picking style? Embrace it as part of aging (though I'm only in my 30s) and move toward strumming more and picking less?
Hey Shaw, nice to meet you!

Sorry to hear that pain is getting in the way of your playing. I'm a relatively new ukulele player, but I've suffered from frequent tendonitis and hand pain for many years.

There's already a lot of great advice here. And, as a new player, I can't contribute much about technique. But, I can share what has helped me with my own joint pain.

I usually play 3 or 4 times a day for 10-15 minutes. And I use some really great hand stretch videos (another UU member kindly introduced me to this one).

And, just in case it's not already on your radar, consider looking at your diet. Inflammation has a huge impact on how my joints and tendons feel and behave. And foods like sugar, gluten, and simple carbs cause systemic inflammation.

Cutting out gluten and lowering my sugar intake has saved me from more drastic medical interventions like surgery and medication. I'm in a heck of a lot less pain and my hands are much happier.

I hope you find a path that allows you to find your joy in playing again. Good luck!
 
I don't know if this will be useful.

I've only recently returned to the ukulele. Three years ago I had severe pain and numbness in my right fingers and forearm. It was caused by my shoulder joint pressing on the nerves. I was told by the physical therapist it was do to years of slouching forward say at the PC, etc. Now that I've resumed playing, I'm also going to resume PT and plan to do stretching, etc.

Take care
 
I'm a couple days into trying to unlearn/relearn my picking method and it's been fascinating. All the advice about hand/arm/finger position has led to me trying to pick with my hand floating rather than using my pinky as a brace.

One interesting thing is that I found I'm compensating for the lack of stability in my right hand by stiffening my grip on the back of the neck with my left hand thumb. When I tried to fix that, I stiffened up my right hand again... Then my fretting fingers. I just kept chasing the problem in circles. Now that I caught myself I'm just trying to relax my whole body more, play more gently, and enjoy the slightly longer sessions (even if my picking is a little sloppier). The human body is amazing.
 
I'm a couple days into trying to unlearn/relearn my picking method and it's been fascinating. All the advice about hand/arm/finger position has led to me trying to pick with my hand floating rather than using my pinky as a brace.

One interesting thing is that I found I'm compensating for the lack of stability in my right hand by stiffening my grip on the back of the neck with my left hand thumb. When I tried to fix that, I stiffened up my right hand again... Then my fretting fingers. I just kept chasing the problem in circles. Now that I caught myself I'm just trying to relax my whole body more, play more gently, and enjoy the slightly longer sessions (even if my picking is a little sloppier). The human body is amazing.
Don’t forget to breathe! You’re processing a lot of information right now. When we concentrate deeply on our playing, we often (unconsciously) hold our breath, or breath shallowly. If you make a point of stopping every couple of minutes to take 2 or 3 slow, deep breaths, this will help your whole body relax. Giving your hands a loose, gentle shake from time to time will help too. I’m glad you are enjoying the process. The ukulele journey can certainly be a fascinating one. :)
 
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