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Thumb Arthritis Exercises to Try at Home

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT April 19, 2022 0 Comments

Woman thumb exercise

Thumb arthritis, also known as basal thumb arthritis, can quickly make you realize how much you need your thumbs for daily activities. When you experience pain and stiffness with gripping and pinching from thumb arthritis, exercises that focus on restoring strength and flexibility can help significantly with symptoms. Keep reading to learn more about thumb arthritis exercises. 

Thumb Arthritis & Range of Motion Exercises

Hand exercises have many potential benefits for thumb arthritis. Range of motion exercises can promote circulation, reduce stiffness, and relieve pain. Additionally, focusing on proper exercise form can restore balance and thumb joint flexion to reduce any unnecessary wear.

Start here with these hand exercises. You should notice over time that you can tolerate more movement.

Hand Opening and Closing

This simple exercise is great for any kind of hand arthritis since it gets all of the fingers moving. Start with fewer repetitions and then increase as you can tolerate.

  • Hold your hand in a position that allows your arm and entire upper body to stay relaxed
  • Then, bring the entire hand into a fist (if you’re fingers are stiff you may not be able to fully close the hand- that’s okay)
  • As you close the fingers, keep your thumb closest to your palm so that you can wrap the fingers around the thumb each time you make a fist for a gentle stretch
  • Hold for 1-2 seconds before spreading and fully straightening the fingers and thumb again
  • Repeat for 5-10 reps, 2-3 times per day

Thumb Cross Reach

This basic stretch can alleviate soreness, stiffness, and restore some function to your thumb. As always, start this stretch gently.

  • Hold your hand and entire arm in a comfortable position
  • Bring your entire thumb across your palm to touch the base (bottom) of the pinkie
  • If you can’t reach the pinkie, adjust to whichever finger base is tolerable for you
  • Hold for 10+ seconds for 5-10 repetitions total
  • Pay attention to the way your thumb is moving, making sure that all the movement isn’t coming from just one joint (all three thumb joints should be moving together with no excessive motion at the base of the thumb, known as the CMC)

Thumb Abduction

A thumb range of motion exercise program wouldn’t be complete without some basic thumb movements. The most commonly restricted thumb motions are abduction and flexion.

  • Hold your hand so that the fingers and thumb are straight and touching each other
  • Have the thumb side of your hand facing up toward the ceiling
  • Bring the thumb straight up toward the ceiling (the thumb should stay “parallel”- in the same plane- with the entire palm)
  • When done correctly, you will stretch the web space between your thumb and pointer finger with each thumb lift
  • Lift the thumb as high as is comfortable, before returning to the starting position
  • Repeat for up to 10 repetitions for 2-3 sets total 
  • Additionally, you can add thumb flexion to your routine by turning your hand with the palm facing the ceiling- then bring your thumb up toward the ceiling (this time perpendicular to the palm)

Thumb to Fingertip Taps

This functional move helps restore function to your thumb for gripping, reaching, and pinching. If you can’t reach your last finger or two at first, just focus on the fingers that you can comfortably reach.

  • Hold your hand in a position that allows relaxation of the upper body
  • Reach the thumb across the palm of the hand, bringing the tip of the thumb and pinkie to touch in the center
  • Hold for 1-2 seconds before straightening the thumb and pinkie again
  • Repeat the move, this time bringing the thumb to the ring finger (then index finger and pointer finger)
  • Continue moving the thumb, alternating between each of the four fingers (as tolerated)
  • Try to move all of the joints equally to make a relative “O” shape with each repetition
  • Repeat the full cycle up to 5 times for 2-3 sets total
  • To add a strengthening component, you can gently push the fingertips together with each repetition too

Fingertip Pinch

Grab some light to medium therapy putty or something soft to squeeze like a rolled towel for this one. Focus on good joint alignment while pinching the fingers together to build full finger strength.

  • Place a rolled “cylinder” of putty or object for pinching on a table
  • Place your thumb and pointer finger on each side of the putty (the front and the back)
  • Squeeze the putty so that your fingertips come as close together as possible
  • Avoid extension in any of the finger or thumb joints- they should all be relatively flexed (bent)
  • Hold for 2-3 seconds for 10 repetitions, 2-3 sets total 
  • To strengthen other fingers, you can switch which one you are using to pinch

Thumb Press

This basic exercise allows you to focus exclusively on thumb strengthening and joint alignment. Plus, this combo move strengthens both thumb flexors and adductors together.

  • Grab a hand exercise ball or therapy putty rolled in a ball 
  • Bring both your hands into a loose grip position 
  • Then, place one hand inside the other (which one is inside and outside doesn’t matter) so that the thumb are touching each other, facing the ceiling and straight
  • Place the ball between the sides of the fingers (sides of the pointer fingers) and the straight thumbs
  • Slightly curl and press both thumbs straight down into the ball or putty
  • Hold for 2-3 seconds for 10 repetitions for 2-3 sets
  • If needed, you can focus on one thumb at a time

Full Finger Spread

This exercise works the extensor muscles in the hand and thumb, helping with full hand balance and circulation. There are a few different tools you can use to do this exercise.

  • Grab a standard office rubber band, ring gripper, hand extension exerciser, or therapy putty
  • With a slight bend in each of the fingers, bring all of the fingertips together in the center of your palm
  • Wrap your tool of choice around your fingers just above the middle joints
  • Spread and extend the fingers away from each other as you push again the resistance of your tool
  • Go as far as is comfortable and hold for 1-2 seconds
  • Repeat for 10 repetitions for 2-3 sets total 
  • If you are having trouble with this exercise due to weakness or pain, you can start with simple finger lifts with the hand flat on the table instead

Power Squeeze

Working on grip strength is an essential part of any hand and thumb exercise program. It is one of the most functional moves we need for daily activities, making is so important.

  • Grab a hand exercise ball, therapy putty, or any other small soft object you can squeeze (approximately the size of a tennis ball)
  • Place your exercise tool in the palm of your hand and wrap your fingers and thumb around it
  • Squeeze the ball as tightly as possible without pain and hold for 3-5 seconds
  • Repeat for 10 repetitions for 2-3 sets total throughout the day
  • To progress, increase the squeeze intensity or time holding

Hand Exercise Tools to Try

As illustrated throughout the exercises above, having a variety of tools can help maximize your thumb and hand strengthening. Each tool has unique uses to consider when deciding what will be best for you. Below are some of the top options.

Therapy Putty

The use of therapy putty is a favorite among occupational therapists and hand therapists for its versatility. You can get a variety of strengths and progress to harder resistance as tolerated during your program. You can use therapy putty for any of the strength exercises listed above. However, it does take a little extra thought and manipulation to use it correctly for each exercise.

Ring Grips

This robust tool is also easy to use with a variety of exercises. However, it tends to require more hand and finger strength than other options. Thus, it’s not necessarily the best beginner tool. They also come in a variety of strengths too so that you can switch between different movements and use them to progress as needed.

Finger Extension Bands

This hand exercise tool is specifically designed for strengthening the extensor muscles in the fingers, thumb, and hand. While it lacks the versatility of some of the other tools, this tool makes extension-based exercises very simple to do quickly and efficiently. Ultimately, it is great to pair with any of the other three options.

Hand Exercise Balls

No hand exercise tool bag is complete without a ball to squeeze. This is a tool that you can keep near you throughout the day and use when you have a few moments to continually promote hand strength and circulation. A hand exercise ball focuses specifically on grip and flexion strength, thus it is best paired with one of the other three options too so that you can strengthen into extension as well.

Tips for Thumb Exercises

Now that you have a few exercises to try, it’s time to review some practical tips for maximizing your program.

  • Always use your symptoms as a gauge for progress or modifying- an exacerbation of symptoms means you need to back off and revisit the exercise later when you feel more comfortable
  • If you are dealing with rheumatoid arthritis, make sure you take a rest break from your exercise program when you have any flare-ups
  • Pair your exercise program with pain relief modalities to better manage pain, stiffness, and inflammation- this might include massage of the base of your thumb, use of medication, ice, heat, and electrical stimulation

    Thumb Arthritis Treatment

  • If you’re having trouble managing your thumb arthritis pain with daily activities- consider using a brace or splint to give your thumb more time to rest and recover
  • Feeling unsure of where to start or how to progress? Get help from a hand therapy expert to get a personalized program- such as a hand physical therapist or occupational therapist
  • Take your lifestyle choices into account for managing your symptoms as well- such as stress management, nutrition, sleep, water intake, and other general wellness factors

Managing Thumb Arthritis

With a few basic exercises and home treatment options, you can feel in control of managing your thumb arthritis. While stretching and strengthening may initially feel counterintuitive for your sore thumb, it’s all about finding a balance of rest and movement while focusing on good hand ergonomics.

If you notice your symptoms are getting significantly worse, suddenly change, or are affecting your quality of life, get in touch with a trusted medical professional as soon as possible for further medical advice.

Sources:

https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/aftercareinformation/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=bo1528

https://www.webmd.com/osteoarthritis/ss/slideshow-hand-finger-exercises

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



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