Wicked Thumb Pain

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by Bochafish, Nov 26, 2008.

  1. Bochafish


    Jul 26, 2008
    Chicago, IL
    I just wanted to share my current situation, and see if anyone has gone through something similar and can offer advice.

    If I play longer than 30 min or so, I get the worse pain in the thumb on my fretting hand. It's not necessarily a shooting pain, but similar to the tendonitis I had in my knees during high school football many moons ago. The pain does not go away until two or three days later, even if I do not play at all. I plan on going to a doctor to check this out, but I need to get insurance first, and that might be a few months.

    Here are some of my ideas:

    1. Improper technique- (and why I posted in this forum) Although, I am mostly self taught, I have taken about a years worth of lessons over the past 16 years. None of my 4 teachers said anything about improper technique on my fretting hand, but I won't exclude it. My thumb pretty much stays in the middle of the neck, on the tip, and the angle between the thumb and the neck is a 90 deg angle. (Like trying to push your thumb through the neck instead of holding it like a sandwich) I noticed the pain came a lot faster on my Geddy Jazz as opposed to my Stingray. The thin neck has something to do with it I suspect.

    2. I severly dislocated this thumb (both actually) playing some full contact basketball in middle school. I wore a splint on it during wrestling 3 weeks after it happened, and was fine. I started playing bass a year later, and the thumb never hurt in the last 16 years of playing. This makes me believe the injury isn't a factor, but again could be wrong.

    3. I just turned 30, and came off of a year break in which I rarely touched my bass. I think 30 is too young for arthritis, but maybe not. From what I read on arthritis, it is an immune system thing, and usually doesn't form in only one joint in the body. It might be possible that I started playing too much right away, and my hand just can't take the punishment yet. However, I have been playing again for about 4 months now, and I still have the problem.

    Any ideas? I am actually really scared that I will need to stop playing for good, and learn another instrument. The pain is bad enough that I only play a few times a week now, and need asprin afterwords.
  2. EssJay


    Dec 23, 2007
    Sydney, Australia
    Do you have your bass sitting up fairly high? I used to have my bass up fairly high and my fretting hand would eventually start hurting like hell and if I played through it my forearm would cramp up. But now days I wear the bass lower (covers my groin instead of the top of my gut) I rarely get the pain, only happens now if I do an awkward slide and twist my thumb. It could also be the neck though, do you have smallish hands?
    And I wouldn't say that 30 is too young for arthritis, I'm only 19 and I get artritic attacks in my hip and legs every so often.
  3. You have your thumb resting on the back of the neck, not wrapped around the side, right? Normally for me the "tendonitis"-like aches only occurs after several hours of heavy practice.
    Try to do two octave major scales to warm up, playing up and down while gradually increasing tempo. If you do not warm up you could have problems like with any physical activity, and tendonitis is the result of not stretching properly before running. So try to find some stretches or try out the two octave excercise I reccomended.

    EDIT: I don't think the 90 degree angle idea is very good for your thumb. Try it "like a sandwich."
  4. spindizzy


    Apr 12, 2004
    Try to observe how you use your thumb for other things not just playing bass. I had a similar problem years ago with my fretting thumb and tried everything to adjust my playing to get rid of it. I discovered a bit later, when nothing seemed to work and I was learning to fret without using the thumb, that I had a habit of squeezing my car's stearing wheel with my thumb like the wheel was a guitar neck and with a very hard grip. I trained myself to break the habit and grip the wheel with my palms not my thumbs and a few week later it got better and I haven't had a problem with my thumb since.

    Not saying this is your case only that sometimes our physical problems playing come from a source that has nothing to do with playing. If it goes on too long see a doctor so you don't risk some sort of injury. Also remember that it only takes a limited amount of pressure to fret the note so learn to not squeeze too hard.

  5. What kind of bass are you using and about how thin is the neck? Do you feel that your thumb is pressing hard against the neck? How high is your action?

    Hard to say without knowing the exacts, but I might be inclined to suggest that if you have a lot of thumb pain to try to get low action, maybe switch to lighter strings, etc.
  6. Bochafish


    Jul 26, 2008
    Chicago, IL
    Thanks for the replies folks.

    To answer some questions:
    I do play my bass rather high, I will try playing it lower. I've tried playing lower in the past, but it felt too different for my right hand, and I switched back. Now that I've switched to floating thumb technique, maybe it won't be so uncomfortable anymore.

    My thumb is on the back of the neck, and not wrapping around. I really have never stretched before playing, thats probably a good idea. I'll take more time to warm up too.

    On the note about being aware of other activities. I do drive with my thumbs a lot. This is a very good point I hadn't thought of. I'll need to break that habit.

    And the last note is about the type of bass I play. I've played a Stingray for years, and it has a thicker neck imo from front to back. I've noticed when playing this bass, my thumb isn't so perpendicular to the neck. Because its thicker, its more of a sandwich grip. The Geddy really killed my thumb though. Because the neck was so thin, my thumb was really pushing into the back of the neck. I have since sold this bass because I couldn't handle the neck.

    Some really good advice here, thanks a ton. TB is the greatest online community period.
  7. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    In my experience having the bass too low is usually more trouble some than too high....just be careful it's not so low that you left wrist bends alot.

    My first question is: Are you holding the neck with your left hand in a 'death grip'?

    These Ideas come form Gary Willis' book 101 Bass Tips:

    Try fretting a note with you usual pressure, then gradually lighten your grip until the string begins to rattle against the fret. Then slowly increase pressure until the rattle is gone. The exact point where the rattle disappears is the ideal ammount of left hand pressure. In practice, its not always possible to maintain, but being aware of it helps you correct when your grip gets too harsh.

    Also, try fretting without your thumb against the neck, just using your fingers and arm/shoulder pressure. Again, not practical in a real gigging situation, but this brings awareness of how little thumb pressure is really needed, and how you can muster your whole left arm to help fretting.

    Personally, I know I am guilty fretting to hard even to this day but these 2 exercises have increased my awareness and when I'm done being lost in the excitement of the moment i can check myself and lighten up.
  8. Jim Carr

    Jim Carr Dr. Jim

    Jan 21, 2006
    Denton, TX or Kailua, HI
    fEARful Kool-Aid dispensing liberal academic card-carrying union member Musicians Local 72-147
    I get thumb pain sometimes, especially when I play upright. I saw a specialist. I began to realize that the stresses on my thumb (fretting hand) were not just from playing. Do you play guitar? I do a lot for my job. Driving is a big one. Do you play any sports like tennis or golf? What about your job? Computer use? Do you click a track pad button with that thumb? Being left handed but playing righty, I use my left thumb a lot.

    All these things add up. My Dr. advised that I take some more time off from playing and heal, use lower action and lighter strings, anti-inflammatories "before and after abuse," and go light on the extreme practice. If it hurts, it is bad. Avoid tylenol.
  9. I have the habit of doing the death grip myself, especially when it comes to fast passages, like I'm holding on to the lap bar on a roller coaster. I tried the whole taking the thumb off the neck then practicing the lick I'm getting pain on; doing that will teach your muscle memory differently and it helps.
  10. Bochafish


    Jul 26, 2008
    Chicago, IL
    Well yesterday I was more concious of other activities I was doing with my thumb. I was suprised at how much pressure I put on it over the course of a day. I do play lots of sports, drive with my thumbs, video games, bass, etc.

    I let my thumb rest more, warmed up very slowly, and made an effort to play with very little pressure on the back of the neck. While some pain is still there, it has decreased. I suspect that the pain will continue to decrease if I keep up these new habits. I also think I over played way too much when I got my geddy after a long time off. Too much stress to fast on an unfamiliar neck probably contributed.

    Thank you so much for all of your input, everyone is so helpful. :D
  11. steve4765630


    Feb 27, 2006
    The way out of thumb pain is low action, a light touch and not doing other things in you daily life that will irritate it. If i'm out in the yard all day doing heavy lifting or grasping things, I notice that I can't play as long without some pain. On days I know I have a gig, I just try to avoid heavy manual labor and it helps greatly.
  12. Primary

    Primary TB Assistant

    Here are some related products that TB members are talking about. Clicking on a product will take you to TB’s partner, Primary, where you can find links to TB discussions about these products.

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