6 Hand Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis

6 Hand Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis


Maintaining range of motion and developing realistic expectations of your hand strength are two good reasons for doing these rheumatoid arthritis exercises for your hands.

By Madeline Vann, MPH
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
rheumatoid arthritis hand

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Losing hand strength and mobility is a scary prospect for people with rheumatoid arthritis. For many, rheumatoid arthritis treatment includes hand exercises to help maintain range of motion. There are many reasons to do rheumatoid arthritis exercise routines for your hands. "It's a nice way to get a little strengthening going and lets patients sense what their level of activity might be," explains certified hand therapist Alice Pena, PT, DPT, director of operations for Home Care of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y. and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. In general you can repeat the following exercises up to five times per session, once or twice a day. Talk to your doctor about the best number of reps for you.

1. Flat-Hand Finger Lifts

For a simple rheumatoid arthritis exercise, start by placing your hands flat on a table, says Pena. "Try to raise each finger individually off the table." Work gently and take your time with this type of rheumatoid arthritis treatment. "Generally [there] is not a lot of strain to the joint, providing you don't have a significant amount of deformity," says Pena, adding, "I usually ask patients not to force bending."

2. Folding Fingers

Another great hand exercise for rheumatoid arthritis is drawing your fingers down into the center of your palm to make a loose fist. Then open your hand slowly and repeat a few times. Pena offers this tip for easing the difficulty of some rheumatoid arthritis exercise: Try moist heat to make motion easier. Practice hand exercises such as this one while taking a warm shower. Other options are to use warm paraffin wax or place a warm, moist washcloth over your hand.

3. Walking Fingers

Place a hand towel or kitchen towel flat on a table to do this rheumatoid arthritis exercise. With your hand lightly cupped and supported by your fingertips and thumb, "walk" your fingertips toward you in order to pull the towel up into the palm of your hand. "Get as much towel into your fist as you can and gently squeeze," says Pena. This keeps you aware of how rheumatoid arthritis might be affecting your grip and how strong your grip is, she explains.

4. Finger Pinches

Rheumatoid arthritis exercises for hands are intended to support daily activities — such as tying shoelaces or doing up buttons — that become harder as you experience more symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Pinching your thumb to the tip of each of your fingers, one at a time and in order is an effective exercise. Take your thumb and touch it your index finger and pinch, says Pena. Thumb to index finger, thumb to long finger, plus thumb to the side of index finger are the three key pinches of this rheumatoid arthritis exercise, she adds.

5. Thumb to Base of Fingers

One of the goals of rheumatoid arthritis exercise is to preserve all the motions available to any specific joint, says Pena. Focusing on your thumb is necessary because it is so important to so many different hand motions, which may become progressively more difficult as rheumatoid arthritis progresses. A key exercise for the thumb is to try to touch the base of the little finger. This kind of motion can help you grip circular objects, such as hairbrushes.

6. Spread Fingers

When you have rheumatoid arthritis, just as you need to practice bringing your fingers and thumb close together, you also need to work on spreading them apart — a motion needed when you are putting on gloves, for example. So this rheumatoid arthritis exercise is to simply spread your fingers apart, slowly and gently. While you have your hand flat, you can also exercise your thumb by separating it gently from the other fingers.

Taking a Break From Rheumatoid Arthritis Exercise

Succeeding with rheumatoid arthritis treatment means knowing when to take a break. Pena emphasizes that there are times, especially during flares or a worsening of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, when it might be best to wear a supportive brace or a splint and go easy with any exercise program that you have planned. This is to avoid additional damage to your joints during that period of time. Working with a hand therapist on rheumatoid arthritis treatment can help you learn when to rest and when to keep going.