Musician's Hand Health - Ulnar Tunel Syndrome

By Paul Tauterouff

Disclaimer: The information given in this article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be used for the treatment of illness or physical ailment. If you believe you are suffering from a repetitive stress injury seek care from a qualified medical professional.


This article will discuss an ailment that afflicts many musicians (especially guitarists), repetitive stress injuries or “RSI's.” There are many types of these injuries. The most commonly known are tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. The primary focus here will be on a lesser known but equally debilitating problem for quitarists – Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome.


What Does It Feel Like?

Have you ever awoken from a night's sleep to find your hand or forearm numb or tingling? This is because you either slept on your arm or had your arm bent in such a way while sleeping that your ulnar nerve was stretched or pinched.


Maybe you've bumped your elbow and felt a strange tingling sensation up and down your forearm and into your hand? This is commonly known as “hitting your funny bone.” What has actually happened is that you have bumped your elbow where the ulnar nerve passes through and stimulated the nerve.

In both of the above scenarios symptoms typically go away after a short while. However if you continued to sleep night after night in a position that irritates your ulnar nerve the symptoms could become chronic.


About The Ulnar Nerve

The ulnar nerve runs all the way from the front of your shoulder, between the biceps and triceps in the upper arm, through the ulnar tunnel in the elbow, along the forearm and finally through the wrist to the little finger and third finger. In its path along the forearm it is very vulnerable because it runs alongside the bone and is only protected by a layer of skin.

If you've ever leaned on one your forearms on the edge of a computer bench while working or playing games and noticed numbness or tingling in your third or fourth fingers now you know why – you were literally pinching your ulnar nerve! If you continued this sort of behavior on a regular basis you could actually cause permanent damage to the nerve.


Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome

People mistakenly refer to most type of hand issues as carpal tunnel syndrome, but Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome (aka Cubital Tunnel Syndrome) affects a different part of the hand than Carpal Tunnel. Symptoms of Ulnar Tunnel problems include numbness and tingling on the pinky and the half of the ring finger next to the pinky. If left untreated this may progress into weakness and pain in the fingers that can spread up the forearm and to the elbow.


Guitarists typically have Ulnar Tunnel issues in their fretting arm and hand due to the position of that arm while playing. The bent elbow and bent or arched wrist actually stretches the nerve and repetitive movement of the fretting hand fingers can cause irritation.


Ulnar Tunnel issues can sometimes be treated through stretching. You may also need to take a break from any activities which may be causing the stress on your body (playing guitar, computer activities) for a while in order to allow your body to heal itself. As a last resort surgery may be required.


Quick and Easy Tips To Help You Avoid Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome:

  • Use good posture at all times. Do not slouch! Keep your shoulders back and your head up straight while playing your instrument or using a computer.
  • Remember - playing guitar is a physical activity. Warm up properly! Many professional musicians have stretching routines they perform before playing.
  • Wear gloves during cold weather to protect your hands.
  • Avoid resting your arm on the open car window while driving.
  • Drink plenty of water to ensure that your joints and ligaments stay lubricated.
  • Wash your hands in warm water to help loosen them up before playing.
  • Take frequent rest breaks from any repetitive tasks.
  • If you ever feel pain or numbness while playing guitar or performing any activity stop!
  • Seek the advice of a qualified doctor or physical therapist at the first sign of any problems.

Take care of your hands and body and they will take care of you for years to come!