Piper’s Hand Hack

What would you do if, after say, 20 minutes of playing pipes, your hands went completely numb? What would you do about it? There are many, many remedies for carpal tunnel syndrome out there, but none are permanent save surgery. Call it the disease of the high-tech era, but it is a bagpiper’s curse.

I have been plagued with carpal tunnel syndrome in the form of constant and nagging numbness in both hands for quite some time. It finally became unbearable and so I opted for carpal tunnel release surgery in my left hand.

Decades of computer use coupled with as many years on bagpipes (what a drag it is gettin’ old) resulted, apparently, in inflammation of the median nerve or tissue build up in what is known as the “carpal tunnel” in the wrist. The nerve compresses in the piper’s typical stance, giving me eventual “pins and needles” within shorter and shorter timeframes. My fingers would only move from sheer will, feeling nothing, and hitting the chanter holes on blind luck. It had gotten so bad that my playing times have been cut frustratingly short, never mind making it through a full piobaireachd.…

This past June I went in and had my transverse carpal ligament cut in two. The results so far are dramatic–no numbness has returned at all–but if you’re suffering from advanced carpal tunnel syndrome and opt to have it corrected through surgery, consider a few things.…

  • Plan the surgery timing accordingly. You will be out of playing commission for a good month before piping can even be a thought. Even after a month, it will take a good few weeks more before your hand is cooperating enough to play. I am two months out and the hand is still sore and crampy.
  • Follow the physical therapy regimen prescribed by your surgeon. It helps. If PT is not prescribed, ask for it. Dutifully perform the prescribed exercises at home.
  • Prepare to be frustrated with your playing at first when working back into your bagpipe. Consider your piping like PT, take it slow at first and gradually build up to a stiffer workout.

In the end, I was surprised how little effect the surgery had on overall finger dexterity and mobility. The lingering soreness is really in the hand muscles. I haven’t had any numbness in the hand since and it is awesome to be playing crunluaths once more. My top hand fingers are again obeying my commands for full playing sessions. Here is a video of the surgery, in case you were wondering.

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