This article will be about typical drummer hand injuries. I will cover the types of injuries, how we can deal with them, and how we can prevent them as best we can.
By the end of this article you’ll know things like how to spot a hand injury coming up, how we can cure them, how we can play drums with them, and how they can even be a good thing for our drumming.
Disclaimer: I am a drummer, not a physician, so please don’t take any part of this article as medical advice. In general, if you feel pain, your body is trying to tell you something. Use common sense to determine if these are good (growing) pains, or the bad kind, in which case your body is telling you you should change something. In case of doubt, and especially if pain persists, always seek professional help from a licensed physician.
GOOD, that’s out of the way, now let’s dive in!
Our hands are insanely well constructed instruments and consist of many components. There are muscles, tendons and ligaments which need to be warmed up in order to function properly. Then there are nerves and arteries which need to be free of stress to keep everything flowing. Our skin and bones keep everything in place.
We tend not to think about it if works and there’s no need to. But all of these components together let us hold the stick and execute what we tell them to do. As you see there are quite a few components we have to take care of.
So I’m sure this list will grow over time but let’s start with the ones which happen more or less frequently.
1.1 Drumming Blisters and Calluses
Blisters are small pockets of body fluid within the upper layers of skin caused by friction.
When drumming blisters can become a serious problem preventing you from being able to play on. It’s virtually impossible to enjoy playing so it’s absolutely vital to solve this problem.
Over time these drumming blisters will become calluses. These can manifest themselves all over the place. I’m an expert on this because I used to have these all over the place. They were there for many years so when I look at my hand I can still picture where they were exactly.
The solution was quite obvious. When I worked on my grip for a few months it never bothered me again. And I’m hitting a lot harder if I need to compared to back then.
You could try hitting a little less powerful for a while but if the music demands it this really is no solution. The only thing which will solve this is to work on your grip consistently for a few minutes per day.
Simply make sure you have a relaxed grip and start doing some rudiment on a pad. It will take time to get accustomed to your new relaxed grip, but you’ll get there.
Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters has said in interviews he pees on his hands when they go on tour to heal the hands from blisters and calluses. On the bright side, he only does this in the shower.
If you get pain from the joint of your thumb your probably gripping the stick too tight. Could be it’s loose when you’re starting the stroke but you grip it before the stick makes impact. This way the energy goes into your hand instead of the instrument. Most likely it will manifest itself in a joint or tendon.
1.3 Index finger or middle finger
Soreness in the index finger is another common thing. This is not an injury yet but if you don’t look at what causes it it might become one.
These can be the result of playing drums. If so you have been applying too much pressure on the stick for quite some time. You’ve most likely felt some soreness and sharp pains before but decided meh, it’ll go away if I keep playing. Been there, done that, doesn’t work.
Tissue has been damaged. Sounds scary doesn’t it? It will be if if you keep playing like this, so give it time to heal. Then it’s time to change the way you grip the stick.
1.5 RSI related injuries will be covered separately in chapter 8.
These are the effects and symptoms. Now let’s look at what causes them to occur.
2. How do you get drummer hand injuries
There are a variety of reasons why you could sustain a hand injury from playing drums.
2.1 Your grip is less than desirable
This is probably the mother of all drummer hand injuries and can cause many, many different ones.
2.2 Not warming up properly
This is another usual suspect. If you experience these typical drummer hand injuries every now and then you should really examine your warm up routine. Good news! Warming up properly doesn’t have to be boring. On the contrary. You have a chance to get EVERYTHING warmed up.
So this includes your imagination. Double stroke roll warm up boring? Check these out then. Or try counting along in quintuplets, or septuplets, or 8th note triplets in 5/8.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, people. Anything can be used to make things more interesting. Or complicated if you like that better. As long as it keeps you playing not too fast and concentrating hard it will work miracles. And it will certainly get your mind off of doing those ‘boring doubles’ 😉
Warming up with hot water is an idea you could try. Hans Eijkenaar is one drummer I know of who actually prefers this to playing a warming up. I’ve tried it and it doesn’t do it for me. But you can’t really argue with someone who plays like Hans does.
2.3 Poor cooling down
You didn’t do a proper cooling down after a gig or after an intense session of shedding – Let’s see if you recognize this.
You have to go somewhere immediately after you’ve just stopped playing so there was no time to stretch. Everything’s fine until the next morning. Suddenly your – insert area of arm or leg here – feels sore and painful. Sounds familiar? For me it does.
Here’s a way to avoid this the next time. Just do a couple of 45 second stretches of the wrist and hand. Once up and once down. You may apply a little pressure but not too much. If this doesn’t feel good then just an exaggerated version of the clapping exercise at a slow tempo. A minute or two should do.
Cooling down with packs of ice is popular among some. Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden uses ice packs after every show to cool down his shoulder which is causing him problems. Quite a lot of athletes use this technique as well, with great results. Using ice baths they achieve faster recuperation times. I haven’t tried this because fortunately I’ve never had to. – Knock on wood. For instance on a beautiful bubinga snare.
2.4 Sudden move
Sometimes you make a move you immediately wish you hadn’t made. Usually it’s just a matter of taking a minute for it to disappear on its own. But it can also stay with you for the rest of the day. If you’re really unlucky this may mess up your game even longer. Try to massage the sore spot and do some exercises and mild stretches. Your body will tell you to be careful though. I suggest you listen to it.
2.5 Hitting too hard
I don’t think hitting hard has to be an issue. I think this mainly has to do with poor grip and conditioning your body. So if you think you might be experiencing problems with your hands because of this, you’re not hitting too hard per se, you’re hitting to hard for your specific grip.
One of the hardest hitting drummers has got to be Kenny Aronoff. Kenny is known for his hitting from the stomach. Yep, you heard it right. Not from the fingers, wrists, elbow or shoulder, but from the center of his body. How does he not hurt himself playing this hard?
- He is in bad ass shape! He is as fit as anyone, let alone for a 58 year old guy which he was in the video.
- He changes his grip when hitting like this.
Now on the other hand, let’s look at Mike Mangini. He is one hard hitting dude who never changes his matched German grip. And he is never injured. So apparently you don’t have to modify your grip if it’s good enough. Assuming you’ve practiced it sufficiently, because strength does need to be built up.
You could apply the same kind of logic to Virgil Donati using traditional grip.
2.6 Playing too much into the drums and cymbals
You don’t accept the rebound of the surface you’re playing and as such you’re working too hard. In fact you’re playing as if you’re striking the surface below the actual point of impact. If this is you then you just gotta work on rebound a bit.
Concentrate on the movement upwards instead of downwards. Almost forget about hitting and try to get the stick back up after impact as quickly as possible.
Make sure to use sight and touch as your primary senses here. In other words, watch and feel what this does for your hands.
3. How do these injuries affect your drumming
Once I had gigs three nights in a row. Back then I was in the process of changing my grip. The good thing was that the old grip was on its way out. That one had been giving me blisters and calluses for years. But the new grip hadn’t really sinked in yet. It was quite a heavy gig. Mostly rock tunes in three sets of 45 minutes.
By the time I was done with the first set of the first night I felt a stiffness in my thumb. I didn’t know what to think of this at the time. I thought this would go away on its own. By the time the second set ended I felt so much discomfort it be almost became seriously painful. I didn’t make it through the last set of the night properly. I resorted to traditional grip but this hurt the same because I wasn’t able to control it with my thumb anymore. Finally it ended and I could give my hand some rest. Eh, right, one day rest that is..
The next night I thought I would be clever and pick an alternative grip between index and middle finger. That went well. For all of one or two songs! I should’ve used tape to protect the skin of the slot where never before a stick had been in. But I didn’t so I had blisters before the end of the first set.
Anyway, I made it through this gig and the gig the next day by playing most of the shows with one hand. Some things I had to play with two hands which hurt like a …. How do think this influenced my pocket?
That’s what these injuries will do to your drumming:
- Mess with your groove and time feel – You can’t play relaxed when in pain. Plain and simple.
- Ruin your finesse – Because you will be trying to avoid pain you can’t produce your natural strokes. As a result your control over the stick will be diminished. So you will sound less refined than if you would be free of pain.
- Occupy your mind so you won’t be focusing on the music
Your inability to use your touch like you normally would takes up part of your concentration. So the part of you which would normally be dealing with music and playing with an external sound source now can’t.
So basically these suck. However, it makes it very clear how important touch is. Now let’s get to the part where we make it all better. Let the healing begin!
4. How to deal with drummer hand injuries
Here are a few things you can do to get your hand to feel fine again. You really should consider all of these. In most cases you’ll be fine if you act on it as quickly as possible. This has to be your main focus right now. Sort this out first. Your playing will greatly benefit for the rest of your life from some extra effort now.
1. Rest and lots of water
This is the most common yet best advice anyone can give you in many circumstances. If you’re dehydrated and/or sleep deprived your body is much more susceptible to injury and malfunction. Not to mention you may not be alert enough to notice something’s off.
2. Go see a physician or physical therapist
Depending on the gravity of the injury of course, but.. Duh..
3. Change grips
This is a good idea in general if you’re not 100% comfortable playing right now. This probably means your current grip isn’t up to par with the way you are playing. Unless something is really off, but your physician or physical therapist would’ve caught this I’m sure.
In the case of blisters and calluses it’s best to reexamine your grip and change it right away. This won’t get better by itself. As I explained in chapter one, I’m an expert on the matter.
In case you feel pain in your thumb or index finger it’s probably worth investigating your grip as well. Chances are you’re holding the stick too tight on impact which hurts the joints and ligaments and what not.
If you experience numbness or tingling it’s most often not just a bad grip. You should examine your posture and balance when you’re playing as well.
Many minor injuries inside the hand can be fixed by stretching a few times a day. This is the most common treatment for Tennis Elbow for instance.
5. Massaging the sore spot
Rubbing a sore spot will feel a bit counter intuitive at first. You’ll probably feel more pain right away because the spot is overly sensitive. If this is reduced in a few seconds you’re on the right track. If it gets even worse, go see if that physician has time for you now..
I don’t recommend wearing gloves to solve a grip problem. This will probably mask the problem at best. I also don’t recommend playing through the pain it because otherwise you’re gonna get called a pansy. Your body is trying to tell you something. Listen to it, because you’re gonna need it in good shape a lot longer!
5. How to prevent getting drummer hand injuries in general
Now you know what the injuries are, where they came from and how you can deal with them. Now it’s time to address how you can prevent them from happening. Here are the ones in the category of general health.
This has to do with body temperature and blood circulation in general. As an added bonus you’ll maybe drop a few pounds to achieve your ideal weight. This makes you more healthy overall, but it also makes your stamina when drumming much better. So no more gasping to make it to the end of that song.
You don’t have to run to the gym to get a membership card. I don’t. There are plenty of exercises you can do without ever setting foot in one of those places. Plus I like to exercise outside and get some fresh air instead of getting in the car to run inside.. Bonus: now you can invest your monthly gym money in drum money: get online lessons with us. And they’re cheaper than your average gym membership too. I say win-win-win!
Here are some personal recommendations which help me to stay
Do some form of walking, running or cycling, preferably daily. I was never into cycling. This reminded me too much of having to ride my bike to school and miss my drums I guess.. 🙂 But recently I started doing about 10K of bike riding a day instead of running my usual 6K three times a week. And I have to say my feet feel more powerful on the pedals behind the kit. I seem to have more control now as well. I’ll update this in a little while to let you know how this evolved.
I never was one for lifting weights but I’ve heard many good things about it. Especially people with knee and/or back problems can get a lot of relief from doing the right type and amount of weight lifting.
5.1.3 Push ups as an alternative
My personal favorite to (somewhat) replace lifting weights has always been doing push ups.
To me it has some great advantages over lifting weights.
#1 You can do it anywhere – You don’t need any equipment. Just hit the floor and start doing them. Preferably within 45 minutes before or after a meal heavy on protein.
#2 Fast – It’s like a little sprint exercise you can do a few times a day if you want.
#3 Multitasking – It targets a lot of different areas in the upper body at once.
#4 Natural – Doing push ups feels natural to me because you don’t need weights. You only use the weight of your own body. You train agility and fitness in general rather than specific muscle groups. As a result the muscles you get from doing push ups seem natural to me. But that’s personal of course. I’ve always had more admiration for martial artists than I did for bodybuilders.
5.2 Drummer fitness
5.2.1 Jojo Mayer clapping exercise
If you do this a few times a day it’s going to make getting a hand injury from drumming next to impossible. And while you’re at it go buy his brilliant DVD on hand technique.
5.2.2 Small shoulder rotation exercise
This may seem odd in a way to prevent hand injuries. But a lot of hand and wrist injuries originate in the shoulder, neck or back area. Many people make large windmill like movements. These are great… for making lots of wind. But as(s) in most cases it’s not about that. It’s about making controlled movements using designated muscles only.
5.2.3 Ab crunches
My least favorite exercises of them all. But they don’t just give you rock solid abs. They also give you a much stronger core and strengthen the muscles in your back.
5.2.4 Neck stretches
The same principle applies here. Don’t ask questions. Just do them. Thank me later. 😉
Data from CalorieLab tells us that a person who weighs 185 pounds will burn about 252 calories when playing drums for an hour.
A Chichester University study, quoted in an article by the BBC in 2008, showed that drummers’ heart rates will go up to 190 beats per minute. Many top athletes have shown similar heart rates when performing at their peak level. This study concluded that drummers need to have endurance of the highest level in order to perform well.
So maintaining a healthy diet is essential to keep our bodies energized at all times. Here’s a list of pretty obvious things with maybe a few things added which a non-drummer wouldn’t need.
We all know we should drink lots of it and stay way ahead of dehydration.
But how much should we drink per day? A common rule is the 8x8 rule. This stands for 8 glasses of 8 ounces per day. This equals about 2 liters or half a gallon.
There are also studies which show we might actually need something closer to 12x8 or 3 liters per day. Marines actually go by the rule of 1 quart of water (946.35 ml) per 50 pounds body weight per day. For me weighing about 160 pounds this would be about 3 liters per day.
A trick to stay ahead of dehydration I recently learned is to start the day off by drinking at least 2 ounces or half a liter. It’s something you’ll dislike but you’ll get more used to it. Plus it gets you in the right mental mode right away: don’t like it, but it’s good for me; so I’ll do it anyway: BAM!
This is not all about water but all fluids combined. But do your body a favour and mainly drink water.
Make sure to get enough to help rebuild the muscle tissue. Think of cheese, eggs, tuna or more specifically protein shakes if you work out a lot.
Take plenty of carbs if your really practicing for hours a day. Carbs have a bad rep these days, but it is still the necessary fuel. At least it is if you’re burning a few hundred extra calories daily while drumming.
Multivitamins have not killed anyone yet, so I guess it’s okay to get you some of that. Be sure to select the higher quality ones because the quality may differ significantly.
This is a very important one I feel. Stretching will not only help you overcome certain types of hand injuries. It will also prevent you from getting them in the first place.
Push till you feel tension, then maybe just a bit more. But do not overstretch. EVER!
Advanced stretching and breathing. No personal experience here, but I’ve heard awesome things about it.
This is always a good one. If you feel any soreness you can massage the stiffness or hardness away.
Basically we have to learn to listen to our bodies closely and carefully. Once we’re able to do that we won’t get injuries because we saw them coming from afar.
6. How to prevent getting drummer hand injuries with drumming exercises
We can also do some specific things as drummers to prevent these injuries from happening.
1. Check your grip
Even if you’re not hurting yourself while playing, it’s a good idea to examine your grip every now and then. If you’re winning don’t change a thing. But if you’re not, investigate. Play around with different grips.
When practicing and exploring do not just use the ‘correct ways’ of matched and traditional. Try isolating the wrists by eliminating any movement of the fingers in what Virgil Donati calls ‘Locked Grip’. This way you’ll feel what using rebound and having quick reflexes really mean.
2. Practice without sticks
This idea is similar to the locked grip idea. You isolate the wrists so they become more sensitive and responsive. Or controlled and fast if that motivates you more.
3. Work on rebound
Make sure you don’t play into the drum. Hold the sticks as lightly as possible and see how much you can make them rebound. Play simple things slowly at first. Only this way you can truly figure out what’s really happening.
4. Practice in front of a mirror
While you do this check your grip, posture and balance in the mirror while you play. The mirror works great because you’re seeing yourself more or less objectively.
Develop good grip, good rebound and good posture and you’ll be nicely on your way to a happy drumming life.
7. Age and drummer hand injuries
I hate to break it to you but, yes: physically there are a number of disadvantages to getting older. No shit, Sherlock! Yeah, I might be stating the obvious here but let’s anyway for the sake of completeness.
As we get older we might get to be more prone to hand injuries because:
- Our bodies get less flexible – We might strain something a little quicker because we’re not as flexible as we once were.
- Regeneration decays – So we won’t recuperate quite as fast as we did when we were younger.
Then there are some other great physical things about getting older like our stamina decays. So we won’t be able to do things as long as we once could. And over time muscles lose their agility, including the most important one of them all: the brain. So we won’t be able to remember newly learned things as well as we once could.
But if you live quite healthily there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to play at a high level at a respectable age. Players like Joe Morello and Jim Chapin played drums well into their eighties.
Enough of this already. Bottom line: take care of yourself while you’re young. Your body will thank you for it when you get older.
8. Drumming and RSI – Repetitive Strain Injuries
Drummers repeat motions. A lot. So we definitely have to keep an eye on RSI related issues. But it’s a common misconception that RSI is all about repetition. It’s not. If you bounce a ball in a relaxed manner your hand and wrist will suffer nothing of the likes. But if you do this bouncing with bad posture while feeling pain, chances are you’ll get symptoms of RSI within an hour.
The symptoms of RSI are:
- Loss of power/control over certain muscle groups
- Tingling or numbness
8.2 Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Over time if this isn’t countered this could result in Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Along with tinnitus this the most dreaded drummer injury there is. If you’re lucky you can get an operation and have it fixed. But some drummers have had to quit drumming altogether because of this.
8.3 Change positions
So you should play with bounce and a loose grip. But should also make it a habit to not play too long in the same position. For instance alternate between hi hat and ride if possible. Don’t sight read too long in one position without a break. And play with good posture. Try setting up a mirror in your practice space so you can see yourself in the mirror. Bonus: you can work on your stage faces simultaneously. How’s that for efficiency!
8.4 Prevention tip
An excellent way to prevent this is to stretch for a minute say every half an hour. Walk around a little and stretch the hands, arms and whole upper body for a minute. Not only will you be good to go again physically, mentally you’ll be fresh again as well. So practicing this way might actually save you time because you learn to learn faster!
Last but no feast, here are a couple of other issues which will negatively affect your drumming. We’re not talking about accidents here, or sudden unexpected trauma. Just more or less regular things which can hinder us as drummers. I expect this list to be growing as well..
Have you ever manually put a screw in a wall and suddenly felt a sharp pain in your wrist? I have. More than a few times actually. Maybe this is caused by the fact that as a drummer I’m used to not locking my wrists. I don’t know. This is more of a wrist injury anyway.
If your nails hurt you’re gonna be bothered while playing drums. This is another good reason not to bite your nails. And painting them purple with a hammer is also not the best preparation for working on your groove..
If you deal with a typical drummer hand injury the right way this can actually be a blessing in disguise. You’ll develop a better understanding of grip and therefore technique. As a result you’ll be able to play painfree for many years to come. As a bonus you’ll sound much more natural and you’ll have way more stamina.
Having said that, we can never totally eliminate the risk of getting an injury. Even very seasoned players get injuries. Check out Dave Weckl and Oscar Kraal talking about drummer hand injuries briefly here.
Dave Weckl talks about specific injuries coming from a lack of understanding about ergonomics. But you have to realize that they have been playing hours on end on a daily basis for ages and ages. This amounts to many million hits. As Dave says, maybe something has got to wear out eventually. But look at it like this. These guys can still play relatively unprohibited by injuries at their levels after making all these strokes. Then you should be able to do so for the rest of your life right?
But once again, if you have any serious issues you should get these checked out by your physician.
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How’s your grip doing? Ever had an injury? Do you have one right now? Was anything ever solved by just powering through it? Or did you have to go to a physician? Let us know all about it.