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.
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.
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.
These exercises can help stretch and strengthen the thumb and finger joints.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 can help improve flexibility and range of motion in the wrist joint.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth can help promote relaxation, reduce stress, and promote mindfulness while performing hand exercises.
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.
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.