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Recently I came across a post from a guitarist who has been suffering from a compressed ulnar nerve. This reminded me of something that I have been through. A period of time when I was unable to play the guitar at all.

The Thief

About 15 yrs ago my main guitar, a handmade slim line classical, electro/acoustic guitar but with a full-width neck, and string spacing, was stolen. It was devastating for me. Of course, I had to replace this ASAP. I had a lot of work at the time and needed something as close as possible to this rare handmade guitar as I could get. Unfortunately for me, I would have had to wait two years to have another made. So I was forced to choose a production line instrument.

New Guitar

I chose a Godin Multiac. I knew it had a slightly longer and less comfortable neck but had no idea how profoundly that was going to affect me. After six months or so of struggling with this instrument, my left-hand fingers (fretting hand) were starting to become disobedient in very strange ways. Playing was becoming much more difficult and my endurance was becoming shorter and shorter until eventually, I could no longer play at all. After professional advice, I was made aware that my ulnar nerve was compressed somewhere along the length of my arm. Perhaps my wrist or elbow. Resting was not helping. I bought a shorter neck guitar and tried playing my electric guitars more but it was too late. Somehow my ulnar nerve had become permanently compressed and made worse every time I brought my hand to the fretboard.

The end of my guitar playing ?

I could no longer play the guitar and even bringing a fork to my mouth with my left arm would make my ring and little finger feel numb and very weak. I had no grip strength in those fingers and no control of them. It was truly terrible for me. As a guitar teacher I was still able to do a few lessons but with no demonstration. So eventually I had to stop all activities that involved the guitar. This meant my income was now zero except for a few royalties and the main source of pleasure in my life was taken from me. It was not nice!

So after trying everything I could possibly try, I reluctantly faced the concept of surgical intervention as a solution. My local GP was of no use and the NHS were not bothered by the fact my career as a musician was over!  I found the best hand and arm surgeon I could and went in for private surgery. My surgeon decided that my ulnar nerve was compressed in the elbow and went about the process of attempting to release it.


The day after surgery I was told it was successful. The surgeon had found a tight band of muscle that was compressing the nerve every time I bent the elbow and tried doing anything like playing the guitar.

However, this was invasive surgery and it took the best part of two years to fully recover from. Many years later I was still getting horrible strange sensations in my hand and elbow area whenever playing the guitar. The joy of playing was gone. It was unpleasant and hard work playing the guitar. This lasted several years before I can say that I started to enjoy playing again.

Even to this day my nervous system still very much remembers this horrible experience.

Lessons Learnt

Now I am much healthier. I practise Yoga and make sure my muscles are released and do not become tight. I remember seeing a physiotherapist at the worst point when I had the injury who showed me some stretches that were very painful at the time as my forearms and wrists were so tight from hours and hours of playing without paying attention to stretching (releasing) the muscles. Those same stretches are easy for me now.

The Conclusion

So read and learn fellow guitar players, this stuff does happen, it’s not nice and it’s not fun. Guitar playing is a serious exercise for the muscles in your forearms, and if you do have to change an instrument like I did as the result of a thief! make sure it’s the same scale length. Never suddenly start playing a great deal on an instrument that is ergonomically different than your usual instrument.

steve osman

Author steve osman

Steve Osman is a Musician and a Yoga Instructor.

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