How to Prevent and Treat Arthritis in Musicians


Successful international violinist Fenella Barton first noticed symptoms of arthritis in 2004, but initially attributed them to other causes–playing too long, wearing the wrong shoes, or overdoing an exercise routine. But, over the next two years the 44-year-old musician’s symptoms got worse.

“I remember that before one concert I could not lift my arm,” says Barton in a BBC News article. “I thought that I may not be able to play in the future.”

One out of five Americans suffers from some sort of arthritis, or chronic joint pain, so it is not surprising that there are many musicians affected. Though repetitive movements related to playing an instrument and hauling heavy musical equipment may cause arthritis flare-ups, you shouldn’t give up your hobby.

Studies have proven that the finger movements and exercise related to playing can actually help arthritis sufferers. In fact, arthritis sufferers who began to play an instrument improved the dexterity and strength in their fingers and other muscles. Instead of stopping, practice for shorter periods of time and be sure to stretch and warm-up every time you pick up your instrument.

There are more than 100 types of arthritis that can strike at any age. Among the most common are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia. Though there is no cure, in many instances, there are things you can do to slow or stop its progression, help ease some of the symptoms, or even prevent its development altogether.

Talk to your doctor about your risk of developing arthritis and discuss preventative measures. If you show symptoms of one or more of these diseases, don’t put off a visit. Timely diagnosis and treatment will keep you making music.

“I would urge people who have any symptoms not to procrastinate like I did,” says Barton, who went back to playing violin following treatment. Today she keeps her arthritis in check through diet and other remedies. “I have been incredibly lucky,” she adds.

For most people, a diagnosis of arthritis does not mean they will have to stop making music. Work with your doctor to learn all you can about your particular type of arthritis. The Arthritis Foundation ( provides a wealth of information.


Sometimes called degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis. It is characterized by the breakdown of the joint’s cartilage, which cushions the ends of the bones for easy joint movement. When cartilage breaks down, bones rub together causing pain, stiffness, and loss of movement. OA is common in the hands and weight-bearing joints like the hips, knees, and spine.

Symptoms of OA include pain and stiffness in joints after a period of inactivity or excessive use, such as a long practice session; a grating or catching sensation during joint movement; and bony growths on the margins of joints. In the early stages of OA, there is no swelling. Risk of developing OA is increased by repetitive movements, joint overuse, genetic predisposition, excess weight, injury, inactivity, and aging.

Usually doctors diagnose OA with a physical examination and a review of medical history. X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or blood work may be used to rule out other conditions and determine how much damage has occurred.

Treatment includes various medications, occupational or physical therapy, and exercise. Heat can be applied to reduce pain and stiffness, but cold should be applied if the joint is inflamed. Arthroscopic surgery may be used to clean out cartilage debris, and joint replacements are usually a last resort.


Fibromyalgia causes widespread muscle pain and certain areas of the body become sensitive to pressure. Other symptoms are difficulty sleeping, fatigue, depression, anxiety, cognitive difficulties, headaches, irritable bladder or bowel, jaw problems, and painful menstruation. Less common than OA and RA, fibromyalgia affects 3% to 6% of the population, mostly women aged 40 to 75.

The disease is more common in people who suffer from RA, though researchers are not sure what causes fibromyalgia and it is difficult to diagnose. There is no lab test for it and its effects on the body are invisible. Usually fibromyalgia patients have widespread pain and at least 11 of 18 sites of deep muscle tenderness.

There is no cure, but the goal of treatment is to manage the pain and other symptoms. Heat can be used for temporary pain relief. Other than prescribing various medications, a doctor may advise patients to begin an exercise regimen.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

The body’s immune system attacks healthy joints in rheumatoid arthritis (RA), causing inflammation of the lining (or synovium) of joints. This can lead to long-term joint damage, chronic pain, and loss of function. Anyone can get RA, but the most common onset is between the ages of 25 and 50. It is important to diagnose RA early, as 75% of its damage may occur in the first five years.

The disease progresses in three stages, each with its own symptoms: swelling of the synovial lining causes pain, warmth, stiffness, redness, and swelling around the joint; division and growth of cells causes the synovium to thicken; and then inflamed cells release enzymes that may digest bone and cartilage, causing the painful joints to lose shape and alignment.

RA can start gradually or with sudden flu-like symptoms, which vary from person to person. You may feel weak and tired, have a fever, or lose weight, but joint pain will be the main problem. Affected joints usually follow a symmetrical pattern. For example, if the knuckles on the right hand are inflamed, the knuckles on the left hand are also inflamed.

There is no cure. Treatment includes various medicines, exercise, and therapies to manage symptoms. Early diagnosis is critical to limiting joint damage and maintaining your full ability to make music.


With osteoporosis, bones become fragile and prone to breakage. Most commonly, fractures occur in the hip, spine, or wrist, though a break could occur in any bone. Osteoporosis occurs as bones start to age and cells die at a more rapid rate than new ones can be produced, around age 40.

You may have osteoporosis for years before noticing symptoms. Many people first notice a sharp pain in the lower back or break a bone during a minor bump. Some factors contributing to the development of osteoporosis are: aging, genetic predisposition, lack of exercise, hormone changes, and a diet poor in calcium and vitamin D.

Preventing osteoporosis is much easier than curing it. The most important aspect of prevention is maintaining a diet that builds strong bones, particularly between 10 and 30 years of age. A doctor can confirm diagnosis with bone density tests, as well as with X-rays and blood or urine tests. Treatment focuses on reducing the rate of bone loss and building new bone through medications, hormones, diet, and exercise.

This article is from the September/October 2010 issue.

Cherie Yurco is a former editor at Making Music and has worked as a freelance editor and writer for over 20 years.

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I have been suffering from RA for 18 years (im only 22!) and i play several musical instruments. I dont take any conventional medications but i do take many supplements and i try to excersize daily. Having RA affects the fluidity of my playing and sometimes it can be extremely painful to play even the simplest of pieces if my hands and elbows are flaring up. Im just wondering if there is anyone else here that has the same issues? I still play as much as i can. I find it extremely frusterating and im not sure what to do to stop or slow the progression of RA. I sometimes keep my hands under warm water before playing and it kind of helps with the pain and stiffness.

Hang in. It’s just begun bothering me…I’m 76 and am now an ‘overnight sensation’ playing lead with a cumbia group…I always aspired to jazz, and have quite a bit of experience improvising…that’s what I do now…yes, the progressions are simple, and the rhythm figures greatly, and I am having a ball with people under thirty…I practiced and played for over sixty years and the locals find out that I can actually DO something on the guitar…

So the article helped a lot. I have found out that practicing moderately and often HELPS my left hand, which is where the problem is. , and my I use a finger exerciser
plus the usual finger exercises I’ve memorized and the usual scales. Lots of them.
Nothing special, not a lot of weird scale-tones…all the notes are in the simple scales, just use your ear and make the simple, one-note changes…you’ll be fine.

So I take heart, will continue to take tumeric, and there are some pills the VA gives me…and will practice and jam as long as I can.

What the heck, you know the guitar and I have been together a long time, so I will ride this lifetime on out, having music in my life…and so will YOU…

Check out ‘La Maldita Union’…I’m the ugly old bald-headed guy, pushing and getting people out on the floor.The studs and the girls are buds and great-hearted people who accept me in spite of my advanced age and fingers…Keep doing whaqt you love.

ps: if I live past the time I can jam guitar…maybe I’ll play steel, why not?

I am in my 50th year of playing guitar; though I play mainly Folk songs, I play quite actively withgigs all over the globe. I have been battling Psoriatic Arthritis for the past 3+ years. I have used Humira, Stelara, and I am currently using Cosentyx. Is there anyone out there that is less invasive than the medications I have mentioned?

i constantly use ice,yoga,i sugar from arthritis,and joint pain hip from running over forty years,i use now a rowing machine,a pilots machine,i walk cannot run,i had to use a cane but i have used all my strength to get off of it.i do not take drugs for arthritis,keep playing guitar,

i put sugar from arthritis suffer but i j just started to play a g guitar i am 70 years old

Don, I also play guitar with Psoriatic arthritis. I am currently on Humira, which isn’t working as well as I would like. I switched from Enbrel once it seemed to stop working, about 10 years. I am on this site to get advise. For me, it helps if I use topical diclofenac, but I wish I didn’t have to. I have spent time recently trying to find guitars that are easier to play. I have found classical guitars with nylon strings are much easier on my joints. I also have been playing some electric guitar, which also has much less string tension. I bought an Ibanez electric recently that has a thick neck. It seems to help. I really prefer a steel string acoustic. I have a 000a Martin with Silk and Steel strings, which is about the lowest string tension that I can find, but it still hurts to play. I may need to limit my playing on this type of instrument. I also play bass in a band, which is torture on my joints.

I was recently diagnosed with PsA at age 53. I’ve been laying violin since age 7. My recent flare up has been causing a lot of pain in my middle fingers in both hands. I can barely play for 10 minutes without severe pain. I see a Rheumatologist for the first time this coming Tuesday. Hopefully she will get me on a drug to stop the progression of my finger joints. I would appreciate any input from other musicians and violinists. Thank You.

Thank you Leslie, and Chuck, My Martin M-36 is not all that playable, never has been, though I love the tone.
I’ve looked and looked for more playable guitars, considered but was not impressed with the Taylors, and have alighted on the Epiphone Masterbilt and EL-00 (whose short 24.75 scale reduces some of the string tension, and whose tapered neck with 1 11/16″ nut just seems right). I also got a used Seagull S-6 which is quite playable, again, with the shorter scale, but a wider nut for fingerstyle (purchased from a guy who had given up because of his arthritis. I also have an incredibly playable old Guild which was set up with very low action years ago, yet really resonates with more moderate strumming because it is such a huge mahogany box!
I am also experimenting with hand wound “round core” rather than hex core strings, which are reputedly slinkier than standard.
Extra light strings never appealed much but the “custom lights” are half way in between with lighter gauge high strings.
I never liked silk and steel, though some guitars might be just right with them.

I am heartened by the stress here on moderate exercise of the fingers. Currently suffering from a flare up due to irrational exuberance!

I currently treat swollen knuckles with these nifty “penguin” finger frozen sleeves, with NSAIDS, including that great but expensive diclofenac, or with a home brew of arnica, aspercreme, and every essential oil ever indicated for inflammation or pain relief, cut with a bit of witch hazel!

I’ve used a few different CBD ointments to ease finger joint and wrist issues, some help, others didn’t. Currently using a 250mg CBD peppermint salve made by Colorado Bath Company which has helped for a couple months. Hope this might help, CBD is a good way to avoid surgeries and meds.

I am so thrilled to be among fellow musicians speaking of things we don’t wish to think about! I own a Martin 00-18 but of course it’s just way to difficult as it was a late 60’s model. Thanks ever so much to Tom, Leslie and Chuck for your contributions. I suffer from erosive osteoarthritis of the fingers and am coming up on 50 years as a guitarist. The easiest guitar I have found to play is the Epiphone Humingbird Pro with 12 gauge light stings. The radius of the neck is actually only 12” instead of the standard 16” which I found so much easier to play! I have gone back to performing after a 40 year hiatus but my future plans will be going on to learn piano. All my life has been music and I cannot -nor will not -shut the door entirely due to this condition! As they say, Don’t die with the music still in you!🎸

I am trying to find out how other musicians are effectively adapting to limitations caused by aging. I’m writing a book “Making Music after 40: A Guide to Playing for Life” (coming out next year) which includes a chapter on playing for the long haul. If you have any stories you’d like to share about how you’re adapting to the aging process while continuing to still play music, I’d love to talk with you. The goal is to share ideas with a broader audience to help more people continue to enjoy music. Brina, the pick slinger invention looks terrific! Have you worked with any clinics on this?

I was diagnosed of RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS (RA) in July 2009, It started in two fingers on my right hand and one finger in my left hand. The right side of my body was constantly aching and fatigue was so severe. I was put on Naprosyn and after some time i didn’t feel any different, so i started on a natural treatment from RICH HERBS FOUNDATION, their RA FORMULA treatment effectively reversed my Rheumatoid Arthritis condition. The swellings, stiffness, fatigue and joint/muscle pains has subsided. I feel better overall. Visit Six months after the treatment, I made an appointment with a rheumatologist in Houston, after examining me, she looked at me and told me I did not have Rheumatoid Arthritis.

I am a 58 year old female with osteoarthritis in both hands. My hand doctor said that the middle fingers of both hands need joint replacements as the both are bone -on- bone with no cartilage left. My left hand is more painful of course as that is the one we use the most to play. I am scared that if I have it done that I won’t be able to play anymore. Is there anyone out there that has had this procedure done and can still play? Also if I choose not to have this done, could I permanently damage my hand and not be able to play anymore. I have significant pain and cannot take NSAIDs for pain which is really sucky because they really help my arthritis. Also does anyone know of any assistive devices that can help while playing? I did see an interesting pick posted above but that is for the right hand.

So sorry to hear about your arthritis. I’m dealing with something similar though I’m not at the surgery stage. Have you tried Voltaren gel? It’s a prescription topical gel that’s an analgesic, so you should be able to use it even if you can’t take NSAIDS. I’ve also tried a combination of support braces and they’ve helped–you have to try different kinds to find one that works without restricting your movement too much. Musicians gloves or other “arthritis gloves” (on Amazon) that compress and warm your hands are also helpful. You might check out the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine; depending on where you live, insurance, etc, maybe you could get help there. They might be worth a consult for your surgery too.

I have OA in my fingers, worse in my left hand. Left index is the worst probably from doing bar chords. I take Naproxen (NSAID) as infrequently as possible.

Any guitarists with back problems, or who have difficulty with manhandling heavy electric guitars, I found that the hollow body Epiphone Casino Coupé is a great lightweight instrument. It was introduced in 2014 and is under 6lbs. It has a 12 inch radius fingerboard. It sounds and looks almost identical to the standard Casino (which is also not that much heavier) but has a less bulky body with the same size and shape as the Gibson ES-339. It is also about the same size as a Les Paul. It is ergonomically good to play.

Hi I’m susan and am scheduled for joint replacement in my left hand in index and middle finger. I just started playing piano after 50 years. I can’t take any ansaid or the verlaron. I’m using braces some times. Has anyone who plays piano had the surgery and was it successful?

I’m 65 years old, 55 of those playing guitar. I have now been diagnosed with severe osteoarthritis. The immediate problem – and it went from no symptoms to intense pain in about six months – is that the joint at the base of each thumb (the CMC joint), especially the left hand, pains me all the time. I can play, mostly without much pain, but afterwords the pain is terrible. I’m taking celebrex, calcium supplement and other nutrition supplements, and use arnica after playing,.I’ve gone to Occupational Therapy. and been treated by several hand surgeons. The most recent doc told me surgery was not an option if I wanted to play guitar. Does anyone have any similar problem? I’d greatly appreciate knowing if problems with this joint are common with guitarists. I’d also welcome any advice or recommendations on how I can reduce this pain. Thanks.

hi, i have read many of the comments above and would just like to say that if you dont take any medication for rhuematoid arthritis and can still actually form chords and play then you dont know what RA is really like i can assure you. if you think you have got any type of arthritis, GET TO YOUR DOCTOR ,if its RA and your in pain then you need to see a RHUEMATOLOGIST, the sooner the better, i’m having a flare up i cannot PICK UP MY GUITAR never mind form a chord, i cannot wash, shave,hold a cereal spoon, drive my car ect, my guitars have been taken out of my sight by my son, so as i cant look at them hoping this flare up goes quickly, i repeat GET TO THE DOCTOR.

Hi BAZZA. I did go to my doctor. He told me to to exercise and do yoga. I asked for if i could use some cremes and he told me that there are many cremes that help like, flexiseq, acuraflex, deep heat and voltarol. Don’t know which one to chose.
If someone know which one is the best (and not really expensive) that would be great. I welcome any suggestions. 😉

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