Connect with others who understand.

sign up log in
About myRAteam

Hand Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Posted on April 08, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A.
Article written by
Sarah Winfrey

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) tends to affect small joints first, particularly the joints of the hands. People with RA may experience stiffness, swelling, and pain in their hands, fingers, and wrists, making it difficult to perform everyday tasks. Although pain may make the thought of using these joints unpleasant, research has found that strengthening the muscles around the joints can help improve overall function and quality of life.

Here, we consider research on how hand exercises may help people with rheumatoid arthritis and explain several hand exercises for RA recommended by experts.

Can Hand Exercises Help People With RA?

Exercise, in general, is known to improve flexibility and range of motion and reduce pain and joint damage. It also increases blood flow to damaged cartilage and connective tissue, helping to keep the tissue healthy and prevent further deterioration. Exercise (including hand exercises) also strengthens the muscles, helping to alleviate pressure on the surrounding joints. This benefit may lessen the strain on sore, achy hands, fingers, or wrists.

Some researchers are uncertain whether hand exercises can improve hand function or arthritis pain in the short term, however. One study found that adding hand exercises to other interventions, namely assistive devices and alternative ways of performing daily tasks, did not bring any added benefits to women with hand-related RA.

Although hand exercises likely provide a slight improvement to hand function in the longer term, more research is needed to determine the impact of hand exercises on function in people with RA. That said, these exercises are not likely to cause harm or other negative effects. As always, talk to your rheumatologist or a health care professional before beginning a new exercise program if you have RA.

Hand Exercises for RA

The following finger, hand, and wrist exercises may help strengthen the muscles and prevent joint stiffness. Before starting these exercises, it is a good idea to warm up your hands with a heat pack or soak your hands in warm water.

Talk to your rheumatologist or physical therapist about how many times you should repeat each exercise and for how long you should hold each stretch. Generally, it is recommended to hold each for two to three seconds and perform 10 repetitions for each hand if possible.

Thumb and Finger Exercises

These exercises can help stretch and strengthen the thumb and finger joints.

Thumb Stretches

In the first exercise, start with your hand in a relaxed position, with your thumb and fingers straightened. Next, bend your thumb and reach it across your palm to touch the base of your little finger. If you can’t reach that far, stretch as far as you can without discomfort. Return your thumb to the neutral position and repeat several times with each hand.

In the second exercise, form a loose fist with your thumb outside your hand. Place the fist pinky-side down on a flat surface. Point your thumb straight up to make the “thumbs-up” sign, put it back down, and repeat the exercise.

Finger and Thumb Bending

In the first exercise, start with your fingers straight and close together. Next, bend your fingers, curling the end and middle joints while keeping your knuckles straight. Slowly and smoothly return your hand to the starting position, and repeat several times on each hand.

In the second exercise, stretch your hand out in front of you with your palm facing up. Working on each finger individually, bend the finger very slowly to the center of your palm. Hold in this position, then straighten.

Thumb Stabilization

Start with your hand and fingers straight with your fingers close together. Gently curve your fingers to form a “C” shape, as if grabbing a can or small ball. Slowly and smoothly return to the starting position, and repeat the exercise several times on each hand.

Fingertip Touch

Start with your hand and fingers straight with your fingers close together. Touch your thumb to each fingertip individually to form an “O” shape, starting by touching your index finger to your thumb, then moving on to your middle, ring, and small fingers. Repeat several times on each hand.

Finger Walk

Start by resting your hand flat on an even surface with your palm facing down, moving your thumb away from your hand. Starting with your index finger, lift it off the surface and place it down toward your thumb. Do the same with the middle, ring, and pinky fingers one at a time. Repeat several times on each hand.

Finger Lift

Lay your palm on a flat surface with your fingers spread slightly apart. One at a time, lift each finger slowly off the table and then lower it down. Repeat with all fingers.

Fist Stretch

Start with your hand reaching as though for a handshake, resting your forearm, wrist, and hand on a flat surface. Slowly close your hand into a fist, keeping your thumb wrapped around the outside of your fingers, without squeezing. Gently return your hand to the starting position and repeat several times on each hand.

Wrist Exercises

Wrist exercises can help improve flexibility and range of motion in the wrist joint.

Wrist Rotation

Holding your forearm parallel to the floor, gently rotate your wrist in a clockwise circle. Stop and rotate in a counterclockwise direction. Repeat several times with both wrists.

Wrist Bend

In the first exercise, hold your arm out with your palm facing the floor. Using your other hand, gently press the outstretched hand down toward the floor, taking care not to overdo it or press too tightly.

In the second exercise, with your forearm parallel to the floor, gently bend your wrist up to the ceiling (so the palm is facing forward) and lower it back down. Keep this movement slow and controlled.

Knuckle Bend

Bend your knuckles as far as you can (as if waving) while keeping the middle and end finger joints straight. Slowly raise your fingers back into a straightened position.

Tips for Performing Hand Exercises for RA

Talk to a physical therapist or rheumatologist for professional medical advice before beginning any new hand exercises. With that in mind, the following tips can help you get the most out of each hand exercise without overexerting or injuring your joints.

Be Gentle

Perform each exercise slowly, and only stretch your hand as far it feels comfortable. Stop or reduce the range of an exercise if you start to feel tension or discomfort.

It is important to take special precautions with hand exercises when you’re experiencing an RA flare-up. During a flare, your joints will need more rest than normal. Take care to listen to your body and not push through any pain or tension. As the Arthritis Foundation notes, it is a good idea to do shorter, more frequent exercises during flares rather than a single, longer session.

Breathe Deeply

Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth can help promote relaxation, reduce stress, and promote mindfulness while performing hand exercises.

Practice Daily

It is recommended that you perform hand exercises every day — even if you aren’t experiencing stiffness or pain. Try to do them at the same time, like before you start your day, so they become part of your daily routine.

Find Your Team

Living with rheumatoid arthritis can pose many challenges. The good news is that you aren’t alone.

On myRAteam, the social network and online support group for people with rheumatoid arthritis and their loved ones, members discuss the chronic nature of the disease. Here, more than 147,000 members from across the world come together to ask questions, offer advice and support, and share stories with others who understand life with RA.

Have you tried these hand exercises for rheumatoid arthritis? Share your experience in the comments below or by posting on myRAteam.

References

  1. Rheumatoid Arthritis — Symptoms and Causes — Mayo Clinic
  2. Hand Exercises Aid Rheumatoid Arthritis — Hospital for Special Surgery
  3. 8 Daily Arthritis Hand Exercises That Can Soothe Your Pain — CreakyJoints
  4. Exercise for Rheumatoid Arthritis of the Hand — Cochrane Library
  5. Hand Exercise for Women With Rheumatoid Arthritis and Decreased Hand Function: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Trial — Arthritis Research & Therapy
  6. Slide Show: Hand Exercises for People With Arthritis — Mayo Clinic
  7. Hand Exercises for Patients With Rheumatoid Arthritis — NHS St. George’s University Hospitals
  8. Rheumatology Hand Exercises — Flexibility — NHS Foundation Trust
  9. Best Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis — Arthritis Foundation
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A. is the clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Sarah Winfrey is a copywriter at MyHealthTeams. Learn more about her here.

Recent articles

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body attacks its tissues, leading...

Understanding Vitamin D Levels and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body attacks its tissues, leading...
Many individuals with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) look for natural ways to help manage their...

Supplements for RA: What To Take and What To Avoid

Many individuals with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) look for natural ways to help manage their...
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a type of inflammatory arthritis known for causing joint symptoms,...

Rheumatoid Arthritis and Peripheral Neuropathy

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a type of inflammatory arthritis known for causing joint symptoms,...
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that leads to joint inflammation,...

Rheumatoid Arthritis Stages and Progression

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that leads to joint inflammation,...
It’s normal enough to wake up achy the day after a difficult workout or a long day of work. But...

Rheumatoid Arthritis: Managing Morning Stiffness

It’s normal enough to wake up achy the day after a difficult workout or a long day of work. But...
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disorder affecting the joints. Antirheumatic...

Stem Cell Therapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis: What We Know

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disorder affecting the joints. Antirheumatic...
Baker’s cysts (also known as Baker cysts or popliteal cysts) are very common in people with...

Managing Baker's Cysts in Rheumatoid Arthritis

Baker’s cysts (also known as Baker cysts or popliteal cysts) are very common in people with...
Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (RA), also known as juvenile idiopathic arthritis or JIA, is a...

Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis: Symptoms and Treatment

Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (RA), also known as juvenile idiopathic arthritis or JIA, is a...
Recent research in rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory disease, shows that what you eat may...

Best Foods for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Recent research in rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory disease, shows that what you eat may...
Telemedicine is the use of two-way communication technology to provide health care.More people...

Access Your Doctor Without Leaving Your Home

Telemedicine is the use of two-way communication technology to provide health care.More people...
myRAteam My rheumatoid arthritis Team

Two Ways to Get Started with myRAteam

Become a Member

Connect with others who are living with rheumatoid arthritis. Get members only access to emotional support, advice, treatment insights, and more.

sign up

Become a Subscriber

Get the latest articles about rheumatoid arthritis sent to your inbox.

Not now, thanks

Privacy policy
myRAteam My rheumatoid arthritis Team

Thank you for signing up.

close