With our hands and wrists playing a pivotal role in daily function, they are often subject to the onset of arthritis. Wrist arthritis can make basic daily activities hard to manage without pain and discomfort. While there is no cure for wrist arthritis, exercises are a great tool to incorporate into your daily routine. In this article we will provide you with some of the best exercises and tools you can do to help reduce your arthritis pain.
There are two primary goals to achieve when completing exercises for wrist arthritis. The first is building and maintaining range of motion and flexibility within the hands, fingers, and wrists. Secondly, proper strength and muscle balance are equally important. The following wrist and hand exercises will cover all of these essential functions.
General Range of Motion
Functional movement of the wrist is an important part of properly managing arthritis symptoms. As stiffness progresses, so does the risk for dysfunction. Try these basic exercises to keep your joints and the connective tissue of your wrist joints and finger joints as limber as possible.
This stretch addresses the wrist extensor muscles in the forearm while keeping all of the little joints within the wrist itself moving (there are 8 bones that all interconnect in each wrist!). Do not force this stretch if it makes your symptoms worse.
Stand or sit comfortably
Stretch your affected arm out in straight in front of you (elbow straight and shoulder between 45 and 90 degrees of flexion) with the palm facing the floor
Use your opposite hand to grab the top of your outstretched hand and bend the wrist and hand down toward the floor
Continue moving until a stretch is felt in the wrist and/or top of the forearm
Stay relaxed and hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets total
Double Wrist Extension
This exercise is great for stretching both wrists at once. This time, the stretch is addressing the flexor muscles, tendons, and other connective tissue.
Place the palms of your hands together with the fingers pointing up toward the ceiling
Bring your hands close to your chest as you attempt to get the forearms parallel with the floor while still keeping the hands together
Get your forearms as parallel as possible with the ground without causing pain
Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets
This move also stretches the carpal nerve, if you experience tingling simply modify the stretch or take a break to prevent nerve irritation
Hand Closing and Opening
This basic exercise is perfect for promoting blood flow, healing capabilities, and keeping the tiny carpal joints in the wrist lubricated for everyday life.
Bring your fingers into a tight fist and hold for 2-3 seconds
Loosen your fist and then straighten and spread the fingers away from each other as far as possible, again holding for 2-3 seconds
Alternate between gripping and spreading the fingers while keeping the wrist in a neutral position
Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets total
Any type of rhythmic motion like this is great for general joint range of motion and health. Additionally, you can add other rhythmic motions similar to the stretches listed above, such as slow and controlled wrist flexion and extension or wrist pronation and supination.
Dynamic Finger Strengthening
Many of the muscles that coordinate finger movement cross the wrist joints and actually reside in the forearm. Thus, the wrist is a high traffic area when it comes to coordinating proper finger function. This is why it should also make sense that wrist arthritis can quickly affect finger dexterity and fine motor skills. Focusing on coordinated finger movement and strength can help.
Each of these exercises use therapy putty for resistance. However, you can also utilize rubber bands (from your office drawer) or other specialized tools like balls and hand extensors as well.
Full Finger Spread
This simple finger exercise strengthens the finger extensors and abductors, essential for establishing balance and stability in the hand and wrist.
Bring all of your fingers and thumb together so that they touch in the center of your palm
Place your rolled cylindrical putty around the middle of your fingers in a tightly closed circle (or a resistance band or finger extensor)
Spread the fingers apart from each other against the resistance as far as possible
Repeat 10 times for 2-3 sets
Additionally, you can focus on only 2 fingers at a time by placing the putty around the middle of two fingers at a time and spreading them apart (rather than all of them at once)
If you want to focus more specifically on finger extension strength, you can also place the putty or band around one finger at a time while pulling your finger straight back to complete finger lifts
Loss of grip strength is one of the most detrimental factors when dealing with wrist arthritis progression. Keeping your grip as strong as possible is important.
Grab a ball, your putty, a soft towel, or anything else that you can comfortably squeeze for resistance
Place your tool in the center of your palm with the wrist in a neutral position
Squeeze as hard you can without causing excessive pain
Hold for 5-10 seconds for up to 10 repetitions
Repeat for 2-3 sets total
Increase the intensity of your squeeze as tolerated
Being able to effectively pinch your fingers together is also a vital part of functional hand use. A painful or weak pinch can make everyday tasks feel impossible.
Grab a piece of putty and roll it into a small cylinder, otherwise grab a small soft object that you can pinch between your fingers, like a small wash cloth
Place your thumb and index finger opposite of each other on the putty
Push the pads of your fingers closer together as you pinch them while keeping a relative “O” shape with your finger and thumb
Hold for 3-5 seconds at a pressure that you can tolerate
Repeat for 10 repetitions for 2-3 sets
You can also do this exercise in sequence with the thumb and the other fingers as well to boost dexterity- moving to to the middle finger, ring finger, and pinkie finger
Additionally, you can practice a full finger pinch between the thumb and all the fingers at once by using a bigger piece of rolled putty- this time keep the middle joints of the fingers flat as you finger them against the thumb
While focusing on wrist range of motion and finger coordination are often enough to keep your wrist feeling good, adding in some very specific wrist strengthening exercises is a great last step as you progress your exercise program. Keep in mind that wrist arthritis management is a continual process, so you will most likely be mixing and matching all of the exercises in this article long term.
For each of the following exercises, you can start without weight (if needed) and then progress to using small dumbbells (1-3 lbs). If you don’t have dumbbells you can use a soup can, hammer, or water bottle as well.
The wrist extensors can get sore and stiff, keeping them strong and moving can help.
Sit or stand comfortably near a table, counter, or other flat surface that you can rest your forearm on
Rest your forearm so that the hand is free and hanging off the table with the palm facing down toward the floor
Place your weight of choice in your hand, always starting light
Slowly extend the wrist as you bring the top of the hand up toward the ceiling
Move as high as is comfortable and hold for 1-2 seconds before slowly returning to the starting position
Keep the forearm firmly planted on the surface while keeping the upper body relaxed
Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets total
To progress, increase the weight, hold time, or range of motion (letting the wrist actually bend down toward the floor in between repetitions)
Good wrist flexion strength is essential for stability with most daily hand use, such as reaching, lifting, and more.
Set up your wrist the same way as the wrist extension exercise above, except this time your palm will be facing up toward the ceiling
Once again, place a weight in your hand
Bring the palm up toward the ceiling slowly as you bend the wrist as far as possible
Make sure to keep good posture and the neck relaxed
Hold for 1-3 seconds before returning to the starting position
Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets total
Progress again by adding weight, increasing the number of repetitions or sets, or going through a fuller wrist range of motion (in both directions)
This subtle wrist movement is so important for wrist stability and can be taken for granted until it becomes weak, stiff, or painful.
Set up your arm again like you did for the two exercises above
This time turn your hand so that your thumb is facing up toward the ceiling
Once again, grab your weight
Keeping the forearm on the table, bend your wrist sideways so that the thumb side of your hand goes up toward the ceiling
Go as high as is comfortable (this move is meant to be small) and hold for 1-3 seconds
Slowly return to the starting position and repeat
Continue for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets total
Finally, wrist pronation and supination provide your wrist with the strength it needs for twisting motions, essential for things like using a screwdriver or opening any type of jar.
One last time, set your arm up as you did with the three exercises above
Just like you did with radial deviation, turn your hand so that your thumb is facing up toward the ceiling with your weight in hand
Keep your elbow in place as you slowly rotate your wrist back and forth (your forearm will move with this one), alternating between your palm facing the floor and the ceiling
Go as far as possible in each direction without pain, pausing to hold for 1-3 seconds at the end of each movement
Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets total
To progress (other than the ways listed above) you can change the position of your weight to increase the lever arm resistance, do this by holding the weight closer to the bottom so that more of it is above your hand
How Exercises Help Arthritis
Lack of movement will lead to further stiffness and weakness. Specific benefits of exercise for arthritis include the following:
Increased blood flow to boost healing power
Pain relief by promoting better perfusion of synovial fluid (what cushions the joints)
Build and preserve hand function long term
Reduced risk of complications and progression of osteoarthritis
Fewer long term complications related to loss of hand use
Improved muscle balance for fine motor skills and coordination
Increased finger and wrist flexibility and range of motion
Tips for Improving Wrist Arthritis
Exercise is just one piece of maximizing your outcomes when managing arthritis in the wrist. Below are a few more tips to keep in mind to optimize your quality of life and overall wrist health:
Always use your symptoms as a guide each day for what you can accomplish with your exercises; never force anything that significantly increases your pain
If you’re dealing with rheumatoid arthritis, be particularly cautious when you have any flare ups of symptoms to protect the wrist joints
Stay as consistent as possible with your program
Keep up with other pain relieving modalities and home treatments for your arthritis pain- such as ice, heat, massage, electrical stimulation, and more
Consider a round of physical therapy to get personalized guidance and recommendations; your physical therapist (or even occupational therapist) can point out your specific weaknesses that need to be properly addressed with hand therapy treatment
Pay attention to your hand and wrist ergonomics with daily activities, especially when writing, typing, eating, cooking, and sleeping; always keep the fingers and wrist as neutral as possible with these activities and avoid overexertion
Helpful Tools for Wrist Exercises
When keeping up with your exercise program, there are a few tools that can improve your workouts. These include the following:
The two best tools for applying resistance to your hand are dumbbells or resistance bands. Don’t have either? The wrists muscles don’t need much so you can grab two soup cans or water bottles. Other tools you might like for specialized hand resistance that we’ve discussed above include balls, ring grips, finger extensors.
Often used in physical therapy sessions, therapy putty is another great resistance tool that you can use at home on your own. A lot of these exercises use therapy putty to work the joints in your hands, fingers, wrists, and forearms to build strength.
If you notice certain activities are aggravating your symptoms, it’s time to get creative with assistance. Ergonomic keyboards, wrist braces for proprioception along with more comfortable and larger grips on utensils, pens, and toothbrushes. This is where the insight of a hand therapist can make a huge difference in making your everyday hand and wrist function easier.
Keep those wrist muscles happy with regular massage. This can be done with your opposite hand, a massage tool like the cold ball massage roller, or even done with use of electrodes with a TENs unit. Pair them with the use of ice or heat to maximize your outcomes and feel your best before, during, and after your exercises.
No matter what your wrist arthritis brings you, it’s important not to lose hope and keep those joints moving to the best of their ability. This will assure the best possible outcomes for years to come. As always, if your symptoms get worse or are affecting your quality of life, bring these concerns up with a healthcare professional for immediate medical advice to get your life back on track.
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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