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Hand Exercises for Arthritis

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT March 20, 2020 0 Comments

    Whether it’s rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis, hand exercises for arthritis can be an effective way to manage symptoms. The right selection will promote muscle balance, blood flow, and provide relief for pain and swelling in the hands. Keep reading to learn about the best hand exercises for arthritis.

    Range of Motion Exercises

    Finger range of motion and flexibility are equally important for maintaining good hand function in spite of arthritis. It is one of many great treatment options for pain relief in the hands.


    Sit comfortably with your arm supported on an armrest or table. Keep the hand free to move. You will keep the hand in a loose fist as you rotate the wrist in a circular motion in both directions. After about 10 seconds, you can then alternate opening and closing the hands as you continue to rotate. Continue for 5-10 repetitions or until the joints feel warmed up. Avoid tight gripping or strain.

    The O Stretch

    With the arm supported and palm facing the ceiling, start with the entire hand flat. Then bring all the fingers and thumb together to form an “O” shape with the thumb and fingers and hold 5 seconds. Return to the starting position and repeat 5-10 times.

    Thumb Stretch

    Repeat the “O” stretch, this time focusing on one finger at a time. Repeat up to 5 times with each finger. Start with a 5-second hold and progress as tolerance and flexibility allow up to 30 seconds. Try to keep to motion fluid and the “O” as rounded as possible (no straight spots).

    The Claw

    This exercise requires a wide range of motion, if you cannot do it correctly it is better to avoid it. With the fingers outstretched and palm facing up, bend the fingers until the tips touch the finger pads in the top of your palm. Hold 5 seconds and repeat 10 times.

    The Milking Massage

    This is a great cool down to promote circulation to the hand. Simply take your opposite hand and squeeze the entire forearm, wrist, hand, and fingers (thumb tucked into the fingers) with a rhythmic motion.  Go up and down the entire lower arm three times total on each side as tolerated.

    Therapy Putty Strength Exercises

    Maintaining hand strength and muscle balance is key for arthritis management. There are many tools you can use to strengthen your hand, such as a rubber band or therapy putty. Make sure to keep the fingers in good alignment throughout, with no hyperextension of the joints.

    More on How to Use Therapy Putty

    Finger and Thumb Pinch

    Using a small ball, cushion, or therapy putty in a ball, simply place the ball between the tips of the thumb and pointer finger. Squeeze the ball between fingers to what is comfortable and hold for 3-5 seconds. Repeat this exercise with each finger. Complete 10 times up to 2 times per day.

    Finger Scissors

    Using a small ball again, place it between two of the fingers starting with the pointer and middle finger. Squeeze the fingers gently together as you squish the ball, holding 3-5 seconds. Repeat between all three web spaces (not the thumb and pointer finger) 10 times up to 2 times per day.

    Power Squeeze

    Rolling the therapy putty into one large ball, place it in the palm of the hand. Squeeze the fingers into the palm until the putty squeezes out the side and hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 10 times up to 2 times per day.

    Full Finger Spread

    Roll the putty into a long cylinder and wrap it around the fingers and thumb, starting with the tips of the fingers and thumb all touching. Alternatively, wrap a light rubber band around. The closer the wrap is to the tips of the fingers the more challenging it will be to spread the fingers apart.  Now, spread the fingers and thumb apart as you stretch the putty. Repeat 10 times for up to 2 times per day.

    Exercises to Avoid with Arthritis

    When completing exercises, always keep these tips in mind to help you minimize aggravation of symptoms and prevent further complications of hand arthritis.

    • Avoid any exercises that require full body weight. 
    • Avoid use of heavy weights that require significant gripping force through the hands.
    • Keep the fingers and wrist in good alignment with exercise to minimize strain and hand pain, no extreme ranges of motion. 
    • Avoid high repetition moves (greater than 20 repetitions), especially with weight.

    Tips for Exercising With Arthritis

    Keep the following tips in mind for hand arthritis exercises:

    • Use your symptoms as a gauge for appropriate difficulty. Modify or progress each exercise as needed.
    • Mild to moderate soreness is expected after exercise, severe symptoms that do not resolve within 12-24 means you did too much.
    • Always protect your joints when exercising with arthritis, start with gentle motions.
    • Consider warming up the hands to tolerate exercise better with heat, pain cream, massage, or a TENS unit.
    • Apply ice, heat or warm water, pain cream, massage or a TENS unit after exercise as well to manage any soreness or stiffness.

    For more details on how to manage your hand arthritis symptoms, see our full guide on Home Remedies for Hand Arthritis.

    The Safe Way to Perform Hand Exercises

    If hand arthritis pain is affecting your quality of life or has resulted in tingling, numbness, weakness, severe pain, or joint deformity, seek medical advice from an orthopedic doctor, physical therapist or another certified hand therapist as soon as possible to determine the best treatment options for you.

    With any hand exercise program, the most important step is to protect the affected finger joints.  This promotes strength, circulation and other healing properties while maximizing joint health. Staying consistent with exercise will maximize hand function and quality of life.



    Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
    Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

    JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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