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Aug 4, 2020 - 6:17:42 AM
45 posts since 12/24/2015

Hi all,

I just found out my thumb joint pain is arthritis, it's bone on bone. I thought I strained a tendon, but the xrays told the real problem. It's my left (fretting) hand.

So. . .I'm trying to come up with a plan for what to do now. I've taken ibuprofen at times, and have a Dr friend to discuss pain medications with, but I'm wondering about my banjo technique and how to play as much as I can without doing more harm.

Has anyone with this issue tried to change their playing (lessen pressure on thumb etc). to work around this issue? I'm not ready for surgery or shots just yet, but it's definitely an ouch-y situation. . .

Thanks for any advice or insights -- I'm not going to stop picking! :)


Aug 4, 2020 - 6:50:31 AM

2087 posts since 2/10/2013

I am assuming you have osteoarthritis, not rheumatoid arthritis. I had osteoarthritis in the thumb of my picking hand. I became discouraged and stopped playing banjo and guitar. I only played instrument(s) that did not use my thumb. After months of not playing banjo, I started playing again and I did not have any problem with my thumb. I cannot explain how rest minimized or eliminated my problem. I did not quit playing banjo to correct the problem, it just happened.

My diagnosis was made by a surgeon who specialized in arthritis. After some guesswork by a doctor and physical therapists, the specialist took MRI's and immediately diagnosed the problem. Unlike rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis is caused by "wear and tear".

I currently use 2 types of medications. Biofreeze for pain, and Thera-Gesic to avoid muscular discomfort.

Aug 4, 2020 - 7:21:45 AM

Texasbanjo (Moderator)


24851 posts since 8/3/2003

Of course, the first thing you should do is let your doctor know you play a banjo and ask him/her what you should do to lessen the pain and/or cause less damage to the joint.

I have arthritis in both thumbs and most of my fingers. It's the disfiguring type of arthritis. I take Naproxen, over the counter, as needed for pain. That's usually only at night as you don't want to take too much of it. Ask your doctor if that would help you before you start taking it.

My doctor told me that playing the banjo was actually good for arthritis because it kept the joints moving and fluid. Again, check with your doctor as your type of arthritis might be different than mine.

I haven't had to change the way I practice or play, at least not much. I never put a lot of pressure on the back of the neck when I fretted, so that never was a problem. If you tend to strangle your banjo neck as you play, you might try putting the fleshy part of your thumb on the back of the neck and see if you can fret with very little pressure.

Aug 4, 2020 - 8:55:04 AM

104 posts since 4/8/2019

quote:Originally posted by jhouseprsHi all,

I just found out my thumb joint pain is arthritis, it's bone on bone. I thought I strained a tendon, but the xrays told the real problem. It's my left (fretting) hand.

I'm sorry you have to go through this.   I am a professional musician and was plagued with the same problem in my left thumb for several years.  Every time I pressed a string it was like a jolt of electricity that ran up my arm from my thumb.

Since I am a professional musician who lives in the US, it follows that I did not have health insurance and avoided doing anything about the problem for about ten years.  I re-fingered pieces that were impossibly painful and stopped played barred fingerings altogether.  I learned to play with no back pressure from the thumb, which worked to an extent, but all in all I began associating my instrument with pain and had to resort to limiting practice if I wanted to have enough stamina to perform.

I finally broke down and sought medical help.  The first treatment was a steroid injection directly into the joint.  Not recommended.  Surgery was the only real solution.  Basically, the surgeon mitigated the bone-on-bone situation by removing some of the bone and inserting cartilage from elsewhere.  The healing process took a while, but I am back to performing (to the extent possible under lockdown) and recording.

I hate having subject myself to the medical profession at all but the discomfort level was no fun whatsoever.  Ibuprofen did not touch the pain, and steroids are a slippery slope; a band-aid that stops working far too soon.  Write directly if you want local (OH) recommendations for a surgeon.

Aug 4, 2020 - 9:10:03 AM
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6 posts since 7/8/2015

when my hands start hurting I use a compression glove and it seems to help. The finger tips are open so you can still fret without any problem. Bar chords might be difficult. I'd stay away from the copper infused gloves, the copper is junk science anyway, it's the compression that provides the relief. There is a brand on Amazon labeled Comfy Brace Arthritis Compression Gloves. You can type soft compression gloves in the search field on Amazon and you will find the gloves, light gray in color. Another problem with the copper gloves is that they have rubber grips in them that won't slide on the neck

Aug 4, 2020 - 10:01:11 AM

2260 posts since 4/5/2006

The closest I have come to arthritis was a shoulder issue misdiagnosed by an X-ray tech a few years ago. Being in my late 60's, scared the hell out of me. I thought I was doomed. Besides playing banjo, I am also a fly fisherman. First doctor said lay off (fishing) for awhile.  So I did. No help at all. New doc said the X-rays showed little or no sign of arthritis. Suspecting a torn rotator cuff I was then sent of an MRI. MRI came back clean. A couple shots of Cortisone plus exercises over the following months  & I was back in business.

Carpel Tunnel showed up a couple years later, both hands. That really scared the hell out of me! Fortunately, surgery was able to  correct that. Again, I am back in business.

I've also suffered from a pinched nerve (neck) causing numbness in my left arm like a hit on the "funny bone,"  first thought to have been a mild heart attack. Turned out to be caused by a number of things, including watching the fret board inlays while playing. Learn instead to watch the position markers on the side of the neck. That is what they are there for. Thank the Lord, for all off that. As long as my ears hold out, I will still be able to play music for years to come.

Back to your thumb issue. Investigate whatever you can find online & make an appointment with your doctor. Ask your doctor about everything you find online. Don't just accept advancing age, nothing you can do about it! See a hand specialist. If all else fails, I might even consider acupuncture. Take whatever measures you deem necessary. Keep the faith. Never give up. 

Edited by - monstertone on 08/04/2020 10:27:39

Aug 4, 2020 - 10:10:31 AM

2228 posts since 5/2/2012

Sitting here recovering from my second total hip replacement surgery, your bone on bone comment hit home.
I have mild arthrithis in my right (picking) hand, particularly my thumb. I have found that limiting my practice time (hour max) is important. The pain comes the effect of the movment of the joint on the surrounding tissues. So an anti-inflammatory (naproxen, ibuprophen) is key to the relief, at least for me. Other suggestions, already listed, helped as well. as does a proper warmup.

Aug 4, 2020 - 11:15:01 AM

Texasbanjo (Moderator)


24851 posts since 8/3/2003

Its funny (weird, not humerous) that I don't have a problem with thumb pain when I'm playing the banjo, but when I'm picking the guitar, that's when both the left thumb and the right thumb and index fingers give me problems. I can't practice more than about 20 minutes on guitar or mandolin until the fingers start telling me to quit. I've never figured out how to stop that problem with either instrument. Makes practicing a problem.

Aug 4, 2020 - 5:09:42 PM

2260 posts since 4/5/2006

Oftentimes alternating heat & cold has been suggested to ease pain, whatever the cause. My take on that is a good soak in the hot tub, ice cold (adult) beverage in one hand, while the other soaks in the tub. Refill & change hands as required. cheeky

Aug 5, 2020 - 3:34:33 AM

3615 posts since 12/6/2009

I have carpal tunnel syndrome. I had friend who had the relief surgery and he lost a lot of control in his hand since, and a hand wound up weaker. And with each hand done he was limited for over a year of recovery time. Is why I decided not to have operation. Computer and over working my hands and arms sets off night time horrors which I found if I sleep with a neck brace and leaning up right on a pillow keeps pain to a minimum. ( doctor says I’m playing with fire)…..but I still pick my banjo although for not so long periods and like Sherry the guitar is the struggle. Probably because of the 6 strings and the way the guitar needs more fingers in play stretched farther apart…..banjos have nice skinny necks…..I use Advil twice a day and in winter try to keep hands warm all the time…..but I got used to adversity interfering with things I love to do….old saying ; “the dog always bites the rag man”

Aug 5, 2020 - 11:15:47 AM
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45 posts since 12/24/2015

thanks so much guys, all good info and I will consider all of it. Sounds like surgery has many different outcomes, so that would be a last resort. 
I had a great lesson today (more talking than picking) and my teacher came up with a good plan to still keep picking for now, with no pressure on the thumb joint. My right hand needs a lot of work anyway, I can slow down for now.
I don't know if years of rock n roll guitar playing got me putting a lot of pressure on my left thumb or not, that's very possible!
Texasbanjo, I did tell the Dr about banjo (and made my living as a guitarist until Covid), he may be good at surgery but not real helpful as far as what to do now about playing. I think he ruled out surgery and that was about it for him. 
Interestingly enough, I have a family member who is a Dr and does acupuncture, she's very willing to stick needles in me so what the heck, I'll give that a try :) 

Edited by - jhouseprs on 08/05/2020 11:22:51

Aug 6, 2020 - 12:38:08 PM

2260 posts since 4/5/2006

A couple other things to consider, super light gage strings,  .008 1st & 5th, the lightest wound string you can find for the 4th, you get the idea, work out the 2nd & 3rd strings to balance out your setup. You may still even be able to use your thumb on the back of the neck. If not, use the heel of the hand. If all else fails, nylon strings. Anything to reduce the strain on the left hand while it heals. At this stage of the game, volume & tone are way down the list of priorities. Healing your thumb/hand/wrist so you can keep playing now becomes top priority.

Bluegrass style kinda demands "attack" on the strings to emphasize certain licks. Seeing as how you are no longer playing on stage though, you can back way off on that. Back to the basics. How can I make the notes with the least effort? Now this may come off as a bit male chauvinistic but, whenever I see women with small hands play up close, it says to me perhaps a lot of us are introducing unnecessary stresses to our hands. Allison Brown certainly has no difficulty pulling sound from her banjo, yet her playing looks so relaxed. 

Keep an open mind & keep searching for answers.

Edited by - monstertone on 08/06/2020 12:45:33

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