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Now, Playing the Guitar Is No Sweat

by Tom Rood

If your hands sweat and you're a guitar player, you're probably miserable. Or at least you're envious of guitar players whose hands don't sweat. But you don't have to be.

An estimated 1 percent of Americans-nearly 3 million people-suffer from hyperhydrosis. The condition manifests itself most often in persistent, excessive sweating of the hands and feet. These aren't the sweaty palms you'd get if you were about to meet Paul McCartney or your fiancée's parents for the first time. This is sweaty-all-the-time.

Simply greeting people by shaking hands can lead to extreme embarrassment, and people with severe cases may even have trouble turning a doorknob or opening a jar. But these are minor inconveniences compared to trying to play guitar with hyperhydrosis.

Slippery When Wet

For a guitar player, sweaty hands mean frustration, in italicized capital letters. Sweaty hands make the back of the guitar neck tacky. Sweaty hands make it difficult to hold onto a flatpick and almost impossible to keep fingerpicks and thumbpicks from slipping off. And sweaty hands not only impede the growth of good calluses, but also make the fingertips stick rather than slide on the strings, meaning that just a few minutes of playing can leave fingertips raw.

A number of simple solutions come to mind. For example, why not powder your hands? Simple mathematics: sweat + powder = gooey talcum paste. Why not change the strings when they get tarnished or rusty? - which they will do very quickly if your hands sweat. It's a Catch 22: you can't change the strings without touching them, and if you touch them with sweaty hands, you will have started the rust process.

Guitarists whose hands do not sweat may have lost interest by now, so I'll assume that I'm addressing only fellow sufferers-the people who love playing guitar so much that they're willing to put up with the many problems caused by sweaty hands. To all of you, I say, rejoice! For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy!

A Cure

Hyperhydrosis is commonly treated by prescription-strength powders and iontophoresis (a mild electrical shock), as well as with prescription drugs. None of these is very effective, and some even have unpleasant side effects. In the past decade though, a procedure that is 100-percent effective has emerged: it's called endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy, or ETS.

In an ETS procedure, a surgeon makes a tiny incision under each arm. Using an endoscope-a thin tube with a miniature light, TV camera, and scalpel on the end-the surgeon severs the sympathetic nerve bundles responsible for hyperhydrosis. The patient awakes from the 30-minute surgery with warm, dry hands. Let me say that again: the patient awakes from the surgery with warm, dry hands. The surgeon closes the incisions with surgical glue or sterile adhesive strips, and the patient is back at work in a day or two. A few days after the operation, some patients may experience residual sweating in the palms, but this sweating disappears in a few days, never to return.

Is ETS for real? Does it really work for guitarists? To answer those questions, I asked one of the finest guitarists I know who once had sweaty hands- yours truly.

I'm 45 years old, and I've been playing guitar, despite various levels of sweaty-hand-induced despondency, since I was 15. A few years after I started playing, I learned I was not alone. In an interview in the late 1970s, guitar legend Leo Kottke said, "I had a problem for a while where the pads on my left hand would sweat. I always felt sorry for those people who had that problem, but luckily for me, that problem disappeared as quickly and mysteriously as it appeared." I appreciated the sympathy from the man who happens to be my guitar idol, but the problem never disappeared for me as it did for him. If anything, mine had gotten worse over the years.

Then in April 2001, I flew to San Antonio to visit a surgeon who'd performed more than 1,000 endoscopic thoracic sympathectomies. He talked with me early on a Monday morning, performed the surgery about an hour later.

After undressing and slipping into a hospital gown, I was wheeled on a gurney to the operating room, where I was placed under general anesthesia. The surgery itself lasted approximately 30 minutes, and full recovery from the anesthesia less than an hour. I was released from the hospital a few minutes past noon. I spent that night in San Antonio convalescing (actually, I have four children, so perhaps I was avoiding more than convalescing), and then flew home the next day.

The third day after the surgery, I was returning from the library when my hands started to sweat, although only moderately compared to their former cataract. Naturally, I was afraid that the previous 48 hours of dry hands were all that I was going to enjoy, but the phantom sweating stopped in just 2-3 days. In the three-and-a-half years since then, my hands have been absolutely dry-never a single hint of sweat-and I've played more guitar than I had in the previous 27 years combined. If I have any regret at all, it's that the surgery was not available 30 years ago.

People say this is the golden age of the acoustic guitar. For me, this is the golden age of guitar, period- because now I can get a terrific instrument and I can play it without pain or wiping it down every few minutes. In fact, a few hours from now, I'll be playing on an hour-long radio show and later this evening I'll be playing an hour-long feature spot at a local open mic. Prior to my ETS surgery, that would've been unthinkable, if not impossible.

If you want to know more about the ETS procedure, poke around on the Web as I did, or e-mail me at tom@roodcommunications.com.

And now, my friends, my hands are dry, which means it must be time to pick up a guitar.

Tom Rood is the founder of Rood Communications, a company that helps businesses communicate with their employees, their customers, their shareholders, and their communities. He plays six- and 12-string acoustic guitar and since 1998 has been promoting an average of one concert per year for Leo Kottke, mainly for the opportunity to see up close how six- and 12-string acoustic guitars were meant to be played.

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