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Piano Playing And Preventing Carpal Tunnel


If you’re a pianist, then chances are you’ve felt concerned about developing an injury to your hands. Practicing a lot to improve your playing is essential, however, without proper regulation, it can lead to an injury. While there are many ways to put your piano playing in danger, there is perhaps no more concerning injury than carpal tunnel. 

So, does playing the piano cause carpal tunnel? Yes, playing the piano can cause carpal tunnel. Over repetition leads to compressed nerves, and causes pain, tingling, and other forms of discomfort. The condition can be career-ending for professional musicians. Piano playing as a hobby is not likely to result in carpal tunnel syndrome. Practicing in small segments, using proper technique, stretching the hands, and monitoring pain can help prevent carpal tunnel. 

While carpal tunnel is a serious condition that many musicians can face, it is entirely preventable with proper processes in place. In this article, I share with you some facts about piano playing and what leads to carpal tunnel. I’ll also break down proven methods to prevent the condition so you can enjoy piano playing for years to come. 

How Do Musicians Get Carpal Tunnel

Pianists are not the only musicians that can get carpal tunnel. In fact, just about every kind of instrumentalist is at risk to get it. Why you might ask? Well, it’s pretty simple. 

Here are the four main reasons a musician can get carpal tunnel:

  • Repetitive motions of the wrist
  • Practicing incorrectly with bad technique
  • Playing while injured

As a musician, the more you repeat something the better you get. There is such a thing as too much repetition, however. More repetitions can lead to compression and swelling ligaments and tendons. The ligaments begin to swell, creating a narrow path at the wrist. As the median nerve compresses you begin to experience all of the painful symptoms and numbness associated with carpal tunnel syndrome. 

This diagram below shows exactly what happens, and how the pathway is constructed:

 

Symptoms are easy to spot because there’s a great loss of control for the musician.

Pianists especially will start to lose strength in that area of the hand, and the motions will become sluggish. At first thought, it may come across fatigue, and some musicians will push through it. That is a mistake, however, because pushing through it will only cause more pain, numbness, and lack of function. 

Sometimes carpal tunnel can be caused through bad playing techniques. For pianists especially, using the wrong technique for even short periods of time can cause injuries. Not only does the music not sound enjoyable or full of tone, but the hands will respond in a bad way.

Pianists who play with flat fingers put too much pressure on the wrists to do the work. Playing that way for even a short period of time becomes painful. It’s important pianists play with a natural curve that allows the weight to be distributed equally through the arm and shoulders. 

With more repetitive motions, stress is put on the tendons. Although finger technique is a big cause of the issue, arm movement can be just as bad. Dropping the hands too forcefully, overstretching, and holding the upper arm in the incorrect position for long periods of time can lead to pressure on the tendons. 

Every instrument has a proper way it should be held and played with the fingers. Once the bad habits are practiced, it’s really hard to undo them. Having a good teacher can help you avoid those issues early on. 

The last issue musicians have that can lead to carpal tunnel is playing while injured. This affects professional musicians and serious college musicians the most. There are strict timelines, and a ton of music to learn in a short period of time. While achieving polished performance is a great goal, injuries can derail that quickly. It’s important to never play injured or when the hands, arms, or wrists are in a severe amount of pain. 

Is Piano Bad For Your Hands

While carpal tunnel is a serious injury that can be associated with piano playing and other keyboarding activities, it does not necessarily mean that piano is bad for your hands. The piano is actually good for your hands if played properly and with moderation. Even those playing at a professional level have to monitor their practice and develop good habits and techniques to prevent injuries.

The piano could be bad for your hands if it’s not played properly. This includes a bad technique that can eventually lead to pain in the wrist and fingers. If you ever feel low circulation or numbness in the hands, then it means something is wrong. Those symptoms are usually a sign of poor technique or over the practice. Pushing those feelings too far can lead to carpal tunnel. 

When playing the piano you should be monitoring for the following conditions:

  • Tingling in the fingers
  • Temperature drop int he hands
  • Stiffness in the fingers
  • Wrist pain

A good piano instructor can help you avoid bad technique. I always recommend having someone to look over the way you position the hands and to help develop a solid practice plan that is safe so the hands can benefit from piano playing, not suffer. This article can help you develop a piano practice regimen for success. 

Playing the piano can help strengthen the hands, improve motor skills, and other brain functions. Pianists tend to have a stronger grip and better control over their hands. The hands also have increased flexibility. These are just some of the amazing benefits of piano playing. The important thing is to protect the hands by practicing consistently, taking breaks, and monitoring so that you don’t overexert yourself. 

How To Prevent Carpal Tunnel

Because you’re a piano is such a big part of your life, it’s helpful to know how to prevent carpal tunnel. Prevention is the most important step so you don’t lose your ability to play the instrument you love. 

Below are a few helpful ways you can prevent carpal tunnel from piano playing:

  • Reduce the amount of repetitive playing
  • Limit your practice sessions
  • Stretch the arms and fingers daily
  • Take time off from playing piano
  • Play at the correct bench height
  • Eat a healthier diet 

The easiest way to prevent carpal tunnel as a musician is to reduce repetitive motions. I always suggest putting limits on how many times you’ll repeat a section of music, especially something that is difficult to play. WE all have different limits, so start small with maybe 5 to 10 repetitions of a passage of music, and then monitor for any pain or strain. If you feel discomfort it can be one of two things:

  • Playing with incorrect technique
  • Reaching your limit 

Speaking of limits, it’s wise to limit practice sessions to shorter fragments of time. My recommendation is to practice in 20 – 30-minute sessions, and then to take a 10 – 15-minute break in between. This allows for flow to return, and for the muscles to relax for another round of practicing. 

In addition to your practice, daily stretching of the arms and fingers should be mandatory. Spend a good 5 to 10 minutes fully stretching and waking the fingers up. Stretches can also be accomplished through playing technical exercises too. 

An often overlooked detail when it comes to piano injuries is how we sit at the instrument. Sitting too low or too high can cause unwanted pressure on other areas of the body. This can lead to pianists using too much upper arm, or overcompensating and using bad finger positions and wrist heights. Learn more about how high to sit at a piano here

The diet we eat has an effect too. You want to focus on foods that reduce inflammation. This makes the symptoms less impactful. Some good foods to eat are fruits, vegetables, and anything high in omega-3. 

Healing From Carpal Tunnel

If you’re a musician who has gotten carpal tunnel, all is not lost. In fact, there are plenty of options to rehabilitate the hands and wrists so that you can use them again. 

Below are a few of the options musicians; especially pianists have for healing from carpal tunnel:

  • Stretching programs to exercise the hands
  • Occupational therapy 
  • Surgical procedure
  • Using a brace

When doing occupational therapy for carpal tunnel, the therapist will find ways to help you do the activities you like to do. There may be some changes however such as how long you perform the activity, and different methods to achieve the same results. Usually, stretching programs are implemented to help exercise the hands and prepare them for piano playing. 

Below are some exercises you can do to help with carpal tunnel syndrome:

 

If an injury is really severe, then it may help to play with a wrist brace. The brace might be a little restrictive, so certain repertoire will work better than others. 

Surgical procedures are also an option for carpal tunnel. The surgery involves cutting ligaments and takes weeks to months to recover. This is then followed by occupational therapy. Other forms of recovery include splinting the wrist. 

Joshua Ross

Hello & thanks for stopping by! I'm a professional concert pianist and piano instructor. In the United States, I've given successful performances in several places including New York, Florida, Connecticut, & New Jersey, I have also performed internationally in Italy and made my Carnegie Hall debut in 2014. I enjoy blogging about the piano, the art of performance, general music, current events and the latest in music production.

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