Hand Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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When your hands are hurting because of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), it’s tempting to be still to relieve the pain. Unfortunately, that will make your joints stiffen up. Staying mobile is the best way to maintain function. By strengthening the muscles surrounding your joints, it may help to reduce pain. Doing regular hand exercises can help keep your ability to do everyday tasks and be as independent as possible. Here are some suggestions on how you can keep your hands flexible and strong with RA.

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Moving your wrists

Start with paying attention to your wrists. Bending them up and down keeps them flexible. Exercise also increases the flow of oxygen through the tissue, which increases the health of the joint. Make sure you work within your range of motion. Don’t force the wrists to go past what’s comfortable, as this has the potential for triggering a flare.

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Curl your fingers

Each finger has three joints. One of the best ways to make sure that all three get exercise is by curling each finger slowly closed. Focus on one joint at a time until your finger is curled into a fist is much as you can without squeezing hard. Then gently straighten your fingers again and repeat. This is an easy exercise you can do anywhere — waiting for the bus, on hold on a call, and watching TV.

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Jazz hands

Mobility isn’t just about the ability to close your hands by curling the fingers. It’s also about lateral mobility, that is, the ability to move your fingers from side to side. One way to maintain your ability to do jazz hands — you never know when you might need them — is by putting your hands flat on a table and spreading the fingers as wide as you can. Movement keeps you flexible, but it may also initiate a process that removes cell debris from the joints.

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Reach for the sky

While your hands are lying flat on the table, try lifting your fingers up toward the ceiling or sky. Do this one at a time, but again don’t force it. This exercise works toward maintaining your range of motion and also stretches your muscles and tendons.

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Tip to tip

One of the hand exercises I learned as a child was to touch the tip of my thumb to the tip of all the other fingers one by one back and forth, back and forth throughout the day. Again, this is an easy one to do anywhere. I haven’t always enjoyed the exercises I’ve done, but this one is fun — it feels almost like your fingers are dancing. You can do it to the beat of a favorite song and it might make it even more enjoyable if the rest of your body started moving along as well!

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Stretch into a yawn

Well, obviously your hands can’t yawn, but it almost feels like it when you get a really good stretch going. One such way is by curling your fingers so there is an “O” between the bent thumb and the other fingers. Hold that for a while, then straighten your fingers again.

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Use equipment

Another excellent way to increase the strength and flexibility of your hands is by incorporating therapeutic items such as small squishy balls (you may know them as stress balls), therapy putty — in a pinch, use your kids Play-Doh (smells better, too) — or resistance bands. You can buy these items in a medical supply store or online. Squeeze the ball or the putty, pull the bands or the putty, and roll tiny balls of the putty between each finger.

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Resistance training

Exercising with resistance is great for building muscle strength, although too much resistance may lead to a flare. One way you can add gentle resistance is by exercising in different mediums. Water is very gentle — do your hand and finger exercises in the bathtub or in the sink. You can also do finger exercises in a bucket of sand or rice to add a bit more resistance.

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Talk with your hands

Do you talk with your hands? Gesturing while you have a great conversation can add mobility to both your hands and your arms. You may also want to take some lessons in American Sign Language — I can’t think of a better way to keep your hands and fingers agile. As a benefit, you’ll also be able to bridge the communication gap with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

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Listen to your body

When you have RA, it’s really important to listen to your body as you exercise. You probably know already that there are different types of pain. For instance, there is the kind of pain that gets better with movement, but there’s also the kind of pain that means you’ve gone too far. Make sure you stay tuned to what your body is telling you. This will help you keep exercising without it causing a flare.

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Warm up in wax

If your hand and finger joints are stiff and achy, warming them up may help. You can of course do this in water, but you may also want to invest in a paraffin bath. This warms up paraffin wax that you can then use to soak your hands and feet. Traditionally, these are used in salons for manicures and pedicures, but also in physical therapy. Studies have shown that using a paraffin bath followed by exercise can lead to improvements in pain and stiffness and therefore enable you to exercise better.

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Involve your healthcare team

You should talk to your rheumatologist when you want to try a new form of exercise. They’ll be able to give you advice about exercise and tell you what not to do. You may also want to ask for a referral to a physical therapist, who can help you put together a set of exercises that will work best for you. They may also be able to provide you with aids such as therapy putty and resistance bands.