Ergonomics, as defined by The National Pain Foundation , is “the science of designing the job to fit the worker, rather than physically forcing the worker’s body to fit the job.” This site contains an excellent introductory article by Dr. Greg Worrell on how ergonomic design can help us minimize injury and pain – Ergonomics as a Tool for Pain Management. It provides some basic ideas on how ergonomic design can help to deal with issues that arise from repetitive stress. This is what my pursuit of building an ergonomic guitar is all about – finding ways to make the tool, in this case, the guitar, fit the way the human body works and not the other way around. Unfortunately, much of guitar design is about designing with an eye toward aesthetics and not a consideration for how the human body works.
For the last few weeks, I have been suffering pain in my right wrist and shoulder. In addition, I have been suffering from a degree of pain in my right thumb. These are symptoms of RSI or Repetitive Strain Injury – Carpal Tunnel Syndrome being the most commonly known example. The pain I am experiencing in my right thumb is known as DeQuervain’s syndrome which is an overuse injury of the thumb extensors and is typically brought on by repeated tapping of the space bar.
Typically, these injuries arise from two principal factors – overuse of the affected areas and improper use of the affected areas. As a Systems Engineer, I spend my days at the keyboard. As an avid user of the Internet, I also spend my evenings at the keyboard since I’m going to school online and spending time researching and reading about a variety of subjects. Finally, as a guitar newbie I’m engaged in yet another activity that can lead to RSI. Fortunately, there are a number of things that can be done to prevent and mitigate these issues. I will focus on those that are guitar related…
Frequent stretching and proper warm up are critical. Stretching helps to reduce stress and increase circulation in and around the tissues and tendons. Movement is critical. Much of what we do on both keyboard and guitar puts us in static positions for extended periods. This leads to reduced circulation and the build of tension in the tissues. Ergocise has a little application that will run in your Windows system tray and remind you to stretch. It will pop open a link to their site at the assigned time and take you to their site. Their site contains small animations of stretches that target different areas of the body. Of course, we’re most interested in the hands and arms but guitarists as well as keyboard users also suffer from tension building up in the shoulders and back as well. Shelter Online has a mini poster you can print out and hang at your desk with illustrations of stretches you can perform at the office.
Yet another important way of protecting against RSI is through proper technique. Classical position is considered optimal for good technique and generally, it is. The angle at which the neck is held, for instance, helps to relieve stress on the wrist. For great information on guitar technique and practice methodology see Jamie Andreas’ site, Guitar Principles. Jamie has produced a DVD video and several books which focus on proper technique and how to build it properly and safely.
That said, one of the potential issues that RSI suffers might encounter is the emphasis of classical technique on maintaining the thumb in the middle of the neck. This can lead to overuse injuries within the thumb. An alternative, though frowned upon by classical guitar technique, is cradling the guitar in the crook between the thumb and the first finger. This relieves the thumb of pressure and transfers it into the much stronger structure of the hand itself. At the very least, it can be used as an alternate position to help alleviate stresses on the thumb.
UPDATE 12.17.2007: For a great bunch of specific techniques, read Eight ( 8 ) Ways to Combat Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).
BIG HONKING DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical professional nor do I claim to have any specialized knowledge in this area. These are merely some thoughts based on my own research. Anyone who is suffering from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or any other form of Repetitive Stress Injury should look to a health care professional for advice. Repetitive Strain Injury is a SERIOUS condition. Working through the pain, is not an option unless you’re willing to risk your health, livelihood and music.