Hand and Finger Exercises to Ease Arthritis Pain

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune and inflammatory condition where the body attacks its own joints, causing pain and inflammation, and eventually joint deformity and destruction.

The hands and fingers are one of the main areas affected in the majority of patients with rheumatoid arthritis, resulting in painful, inflamed joints, deformity of the fingers, and loss of hand function.

Exercises for your hands and fingers can help prevent arthritis-related deformity and improve use of your hands by maintaining good integrity and functionality of your hand and finger joints.

Senior woman's hand holding red elastic rubber band

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Hand Anatomy

Each hand is composed of 27 different bones. These include the eight carpal bones at the bottom of the hand closest to the wrist, the five long metacarpal bones that make up the palm of the hand and connect to the carpal bones, and the remaining 14 phalange bones that make up the fingers. The thumb contains two phalange bones, while each of the rest of the fingers contains three phalange bones.

Many small muscles of the hands control individual finger movements to enable the fingers to bend, extend, spread apart, and squeeze together. The thumb contains its own separate set of muscles, referred to as the thenar eminence, that contributes to its unique opposable ability to move in multiple directions and aid in fine motor movements.

Each place where one bone connects to another forms a joint in the hands and fingers. Within the joint space between two bones, there is a joint capsule that is lined with a membrane called the synovium. Synovial fluid fills the space within the synovial membrane lining.

Synovial Fluid and Arthritis

The space between joints (synovium) is naturally filled with synovial fluid that provides nutrients to the cartilage within joints and lubricates the joints to allow bones to move smoothly without friction to the cartilage.

Healthy synovial fluid contains high levels of hyaluronic acid that helps provide a lubricating effect, but it has been reported in clinical research that levels of hyaluronic acid within the synovial fluid of joints is decreased in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Increased reactive oxygen species and free radicals that form from the inflammatory processes that occur with rheumatoid arthritis accelerate degradation of hyaluronic acid and reduce its molecular weight and concentration within the synovial fluid.

When hyaluronic acid within the synovial fluid has both a lower concentration and lower molecular weight, it has a much less effective ability to lubricate joints and prevent cartilage damage from friction. This leads to joint pain, inflammation, and stiffness.

Exercise Increases Synovial Fluid

Levels of hyaluronic acid within the synovial fluid are measured by molecular weight, and joints that have a higher molecular weight of hyaluronic acid tend to have higher viscoelasticity properties that aid in joint lubrication.

Without adequate levels of hyaluronic acid within the synovial fluid of joints, cartilage is at an increased risk of breakdown, which can lead to even more pain and disability. 

Exercise has the potential to increase the molecular weight of hyaluronic acid and the viscosity of the synovial fluid within arthritic joints, which can help improve joint lubrication and relieve pain.

Hand and Finger Exercises

The following exercises can help decrease hand and finger stiffness and strengthen the muscles of the hand and fingers that contribute to fine motor control and grip strength. These are important components needed to complete everyday activities that require pinching, gripping, and grasping objects.

Putty Squeeze

This exercise helps improve your overall grip strength.

To perform this exercise: 

  • Roll a piece of putty into a tubular shape.
  • Place the putty roll in the palm of your hand and squeeze your fingers to make a fist around the putty.
  • Maintain this contraction, squeezing the putty as hard as you can for three to five seconds. Then relax.
  • Repeat for 10 repetitions.

Putty Pinch

This exercise helps improve the strength of your thumb muscles and pinch grip strength.

To perform this exercise: 

  • Grab a piece of putty in a ball and place it between your thumb and your other four fingers.
  • Press your thumb into the putty in a pinching motion, squeezing your fingers and thumb together.
  • Maintain this contraction, squeezing the putty as hard as you can for three to five seconds. Then relax.
  • Repeat for 10 repetitions.

Finger Adduction With Putty

This exercise helps improve the mobility of your fingers and strengthen your palmar interossei, the small muscles between your fingers on the palm side of your hand that adduct your fingers (bring them together) and stabilize your finger joints.

To perform: 

  • Roll a piece of putty into a thin tubular shape.
  • Place the putty roll in between each of your four fingers so that there is putty in between each finger.
  • Squeeze your fingers together into the putty to bring your fingers as close together as possible.
  • Maintain this contraction, squeezing the putty as hard as you can between your fingers for three to five seconds. Then relax.
  • Repeat for 10 repetitions.

Finger Abduction With Rubber Band

This exercise helps improve the mobility of your fingers and strengthen your dorsal interossei.

To perform this exercise:

  • Bring your thumb and the other four fingers together to touch, then place a rubber band around all of them.
  • Push your fingers out against the rubber band to extend your fingers and stretch the rubber band.
  • Maintain the tension on the rubber band stretched out for three to five seconds. Then relax.
  • Repeat for 10 repetitions.

Sequential Finger Extension

This exercise helps improve the mobility and coordination of your fingers.

To perform this exercise: 

  • Start with your palm and fingers flat on a surface.
  • Isolate just your index finger and lift your index finger up off the surface while maintaining your palm and the rest of your fingers flat.
  • Bring your index finger back down to the surface, then isolate and lift your middle finger from the surface.
  • Relax your middle finger, then move on to your ring finger and pinky finger, lifting each finger one at a time, before moving on to the next.
  • Repeat the process across all fingers of your hands for a total of 10 repetitions for each finger.

Thumb Abduction

This exercise helps strengthen your abductor pollicis brevis muscle of the thumb and abductor pollicis longus.

To perform this exercise: 

  • Start by holding your hands out in front of your body with your palms facing each other.
  • Isolate just your thumbs and extend your thumbs out toward the opposite hand so that both thumbs are pointing toward each other.
  • Then relax your thumbs by bringing them past in line with your other fingers, more across the palm.
  • Repeat for 10 repetitions.

Thumb Flexion and Extension

This exercise helps strengthen your extensor pollicis longus, extensor pollicis brevis, and flexor pollicis brevis muscles of the thumb.

To perform this exercise: 

  • Start by holding your hands out in front of your body with your palms facing upward.
  • Isolate just your thumbs and extend your thumbs out away from your hands.
  • Then relax your thumbs by bringing them back in line with your other fingers.
  • Repeat for 10 repetitions.

Thumb Opposition

This exercise helps to strengthen your opponens pollicis muscle of the thumb.

To perform this exercise: 

  • Begin by holding your hands in front of you with your palms facing upward.
  • Next, bring your thumb and pointer finger to touch, tip to tip.
  • Then relax and open your hand.
  • Move next to your middle finger and bring your thumb and middle finger to touch, tip to tip, then relax.
  • Repeat the process with your ring finger and pinky finger next, bringing one finger to touch the thumb at a time before moving onto the next.
  • Repeat the process across all fingers of your hands for a total of 10 repetitions for each finger.
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4 Sources
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  3. Brorsson S, Hilliges M, Sollerman C, Nilsdotter A. A six-week hand exercise programme improves strength and hand function in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. J Rehabil Med. 2009;41(5):338-342. doi:10.2340/16501977-0334

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