Exercising is considered one of the best ways to reduce pain and stiffness from rheumatoid arthritis (RA) because it can help improve your flexibility and strength. For individuals whose hands are affected by RA, exercises can help ease the symptoms and provide relief. People with RA should check with the health care providers before starting any exercise regimen.
“Did hand exercises today — they are helping,” wrote one myRAteam member. Another said, “The success I have had this week is consistently doing one of my hand exercises every day this week. Building in slow steps toward the habit of hand exercises every day and not feeling overwhelmed by one more thing to do every day.”
To understand how you can incorporate hand exercises into your daily routine, myRAteam sat down with Randi B. Likely, an exercise physiologist who has lived with RA since she was 16. “Exercising your hands with RA is so important,” she said. “It allows you to maintain movement within those joints and ensure that you’re keeping the mobility and the integrity of how the joint was designed to actually move.”
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When your muscles are strong enough, they can help ease some of the tension and pressure that are then put onto the joints, Likely said. “Something as simple as holding a backpack or carrying grocery bags can be challenging when you have RA, but improving your strength and mobility will allow you to ease that pain and stress.”
To boost the mobility in your fingers and hands, you can perform a precision grip exercise — also referred to as “finger touches” or “pad touches.” Start with your hand open with your fingers pointing toward the ceiling, as if you’re waving hello. Then, one by one, you will touch each finger to your thumb and release it. Then move to the other hand.
“Mobility is so important in the MCP [metacarpophalangeal] joints, or the joints in the knuckles because RA can attack these areas and cause pain and the inability to move your hands,” Likely said. “Performing movements in this area can help to then allow those tendons that are so predisposed to RA to keep moving. So I consider these moves really, really important.”
Performing joint extensions allows you to maintain motion and flexibility in the hand and finger joints. To perform this move, you’ll make a fist and then open it, extending all of your fingers outward as if you’re waving hello to someone. Repeat this motion several times with one hand, and then switch to the other hand.
“This not only helps you maintain your range of motion, but those of us with RA are predisposed to a condition called trigger finger,” Likely said. “In that situation, inflammation can build up in our fingers and cause the fingers to get stuck in a certain position because the tendons are inflamed. And so just keeping that motion and that glide by performing these exercises helps to decrease the likelihood of having trigger finger because it’s preventing inflammation from building up.”
To help build strength in your hands and fingers, you can perform finger walks. Rest your fingers against a wall and then “walk” your fingers up. Try to avoid using your shoulders, palms, or arms. Let your fingers do the work when moving up the wall. You can finger walk up the wall three or four times before switching to the other hand.
“This helps build strength on the inside of your hands and also on the outside of your hands,” Likely said. “I love this one so much because it also doubles as a way to boost shoulder mobility. And you might think that it wouldn’t because you’re not engaging your shoulders, but if you experience a shoulder flare-up, this movement will help to then passively move your joint without actively moving it. When you’re in a flare, actively moving your joint causes a significant amount of pain, but if you passively move the joint — if someone else moves it for you or if you have another body part move it — then it doesn’t cause as much pain, but it can help you get some mobility back.”
To help increase strength and mobility in your wrist, you can perform wrist stretches. Start with your hand outstretched with your palm facing the ceiling, and then flip your hand upside down so your palm is facing the floor, using the wrist to make the motions rather than using your arm.
“This is so good for the wrist because people with RA are predisposed to carpal tunnel syndrome,” Likely said. “Making sure you’re keeping that motion going through your wrist is really important to maintain your flexibility and help stave off any swelling.”
Perform this motion four or five times in one wrist before switching to your other wrist.
If you are performing hand exercises to preventively build your strength and maintain mobility, you can do them daily, Likely says. But if you are targeting a specific situation and you aren’t in pain, you can increase it to three times a day. “For example, if your shoulders are bothering you and you want to do the finger walks, you can do them three times in a day to help maintain motion, so the frequency will depend on where you are on that day,” she said.
Talk to your rheumatologist about how often you should perform hand exercises and whether to continue doing them if you experience pain because each person’s situation is different. “If I wake up feeling my typical morning stiffness that usually lasts for about 30 minutes, I wait until that subsides before I do my exercises,” Likely said. “But if I’m in a flare and I need to reach out to my rheumatologist or take a secondary medication, then I might hold back on exercising until the strongest pain subsides, or I might just perform passive exercises,” she added.
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How do hand exercises help you reach your goals? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.