12 exercises to help with hand arthritis

Discover 12 key exercises to help you manage symptoms of hand arthritis.

12 exercises to help with hand arthritis
minute read

Medically Reviewed byDr. Caley Scott, ND

Your hands are the tools that bridge the gap between you and the physical world. From work and hobbies to self-care, you rely on healthy, functional hands and joints in every aspect of life.

This is why hand arthritis can be one of the most debilitating and frustrating conditions that one can experience. The hand pain that comes with arthritis can prevent us from completing everyday tasks, spending time with others, and enjoying life.

While arthritis can range in severity and root causes, there are several ways to address the issue and keep discomfort to a minimum. In this article, we’ll cover the types and symptoms of hand arthritis, and offer some exercises that can help you navigate the journey with more comfort and confidence.

What causes hand arthritis?

Hand arthritis is caused by two main conditions: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is the more common of the two types, characterized by the degradation of the cushioning in the joints over time. Small amounts of synovial fluid are found in joints throughout the body, offering lubrication and support for movement and structure. 

However, overuse or injury can lead to this fluid wearing down and losing its supportive properties, leaving joints vulnerable to friction and arthritic conditions.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that is far more unpredictable and has the potential to become severe in a short timeframe. Patients may experience “flare-up” episodes in which the synovium becomes inflamed, leading to intense discomfort or prolonged damage. In severe instances, rheumatoid arthritis can cause deformities to the joint or bone itself rather than just the synovial fluid.

Because rheumatoid arthritis is harder to predict and manage, it is considered to be the more severe and harmful of the two arthritis types. Another key consideration is symmetry. While osteoarthritis tends to develop on one hand due to overuse, rheumatoid flare-ups more commonly occur in both hands, leading to a more debilitating condition. 

Of course, both conditions can have a negative impact on quality of life and comfort, and neither should be taken lightly. It’s important to learn about the nature of your condition early on and take the proper steps to mitigate damage while maintaining comfort and function.

What are the symptoms of hand arthritis?

Whether in the form of hand osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, those who suffer from these conditions experience a range of typical symptoms.

Persistent joint discomfort is the most common symptom of arthritis across the board, particularly after movement and usage. Hand arthritis is also accompanied by stiffness in the joints, which can limit function and make it difficult to perform tasks for work or around the house. 

In some cases, hand arthritis can make the hands feel swollen or tender, further limiting movement and adding to general discomfort. This can lead to a general sense of unease or feeling unwell, and some patients experience fatigue or stress due to the indirect effects of arthritis.

It’s always important to monitor your symptoms and arthritis pain closely, no matter what stage of hand arthritis you’re experiencing. This will help your physical therapist form a treatment plan and ensure you keep arthritis symptoms minimal as you forge your way to recovery.

How does exercise help with hand arthritis

Hand arthritis is a serious matter and requires a commitment to keeping hands strong, flexible, and able to heal. The more serious the case, the more effort and time you’ll have to apply to alleviate symptoms and return to form and function.

General exercise is important to reduce the symptoms of hand arthritis. It supports healing mechanisms in the body and helps maintain healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels. With that in mind, low-impact exercises for the lower body (like jogging or cycling) tend to be safer and more beneficial if your type of arthritis is severe.

Meanwhile, you can perform several beneficial movements to support flexibility and strength in the hands. As always, be sure to consult your healthcare provider before starting an exercise routine, whether you have been diagnosed with arthritis or another condition. 

12 exercises for managing hand arthritis

Applying actionable steps is key to managing hand arthritis and maintaining overall health. There are several useful exercises you can start performing now to strengthen your hands, increase movement, and prime yourself for a sustainable recovery journey. 

The following exercises can help you manage hand arthritis and get back to healthy living.

1. Finger lifts

Finger lifts are the perfect way to warm up finger joints from a neutral starting position. This movement will encourage the flow of blood and lymph throughout the hands and reduce stiffness or swelling when performed intentionally.

Start with your palms facing down on a flat surface with your fingers unmoved, then slowly lift each finger on either hand as high as you can take them. You’ll feel the many muscles in the hand and wrist activate as you lift each finger up and down. 

Use slow repetitions and do multiple sets until your hands feel warmed up and ready for more movements.

2. Thumb stretches

The thumb is a common target for arthritis of both types and should be the main focus of your PT efforts regardless of your symptoms. Thumb stretches are ideal for warming up before taking on more challenging hand exercises, so learn a series of different movements for your arsenal.

Start by stretching your thumb in the opposite direction of your index finger, followed by a deep stretch toward your palm. You can use a surface to gently stretch the thumbs in any direction, provided you go slowly and use caution. Avoid placing too much pressure on the thumb, as this can cause other joints in the hands to seize up.

3. Tendon glides

While many arthritis exercises involve moving individual digits, it’s important to alternate these movements that utilize all fingers at once. Tendon glides are a series of movements that work the tendons of the hands in unison, allowing for a holistic warmup and flexibility benefits.

Start by holding your hand straight up in the air in an “oath” position and flexing the fingers back with just your own strength. Follow this with a “hook” shape so that your fingertips touch the tops of your palms. From there, make a “straight fist” and a “full fist” shape to fully warm up the tendons. 

You can go through this set of motions slowly at first and pick up the pace with more rigorous movements as you gain mobility and comfort.

4. Pinky stretch

As the smallest finger, the pinky needs to be treated with care and caution in your PT routine. Start by manually bending and extending the pinky with gentle movements to help it warm up, then extend it slowly away from the ring finger to increase range of motion.

You can also use a hard surface to bend the pinky in various directions depending on your comfort level. Be sure to take these movements slowly and balance them with other exercises to prevent overuse. You may want to save this movement for last if your pinky is a main point of concern.

5. Thumb opposition

This movement involves targeting the thumb joints by bringing the thumb across the hand to the opposite side of the palm. You can make contact between the fingertips of the thumb and pinky as a point of reference. As you warm up, try applying more pressure between these points to strengthen the palm, leaving the rest of the fingers neutral.

You can also perform thumb opposition exercises while massaging the palms to increase blood flow and reduce stiffness. These are also good to pair with thumb stretches and tendon glides.

6. Finger squeezes

Squeezing individual fingers with the opposite hand can work wonders in reducing tension and bringing blood flow to the area. Just be sure to squeeze lightly at first and ensure that it’s not adding to your discomfort. You can also squeeze pairs or groups of fingers together, depending on your functionality.

7. Wrist flexion and extension

The joints of the wrist are directly linked to the hand, meaning you shouldn't neglect wrist movements as part of your routine. Try different angles for wrist flexion and extension, going back and forth with varying degrees of pressure. 

Even if your wrist feels fine without these movements, they will support your long-term hand health and may limit the lasting effects of arthritis.

8. Hand open and close

A simple open-and-close movement goes a long way in reducing discomfort and tension in the hands and wrists. This is a great starter or finisher movement for your routine, regardless of your hand strength. 

Start with slow and gentle opens and closes, gradually adding more pressure and tension. When you close your hand, it should be in a loose fist. With this exercise, you’re supporting grip strength and your recovery process.

9. Finger taps

Tapping your fingers may not seem effective until you try this technique for yourself! You can start by tapping your fingers against your thumb on the same hand or pressing your fingertips down on a tougher surface for extra resistance. Try to limit high-impact tapping and focus on slow, intentional presses for best results.

10. Wrist circles

Performing a circle motion with your wrist will promote mobility and increase the flow of fluids throughout the hands. Make slow circles in either direction focusing on maximizing range of motion and keeping the target area limber. 

These movements can be done as a warm-up, cool-down, or as a “break” between finger exercises for added relief. 

11. Hand squeeze and release

Squeezing your hands is more of a strength-building exercise, so save this one for later in your routine. Focus on achieving a strict contraction rather than the maximum applied force. You can also use instruments like a stress ball or strengthening device to support this exercise and support general hand therapy.

Bottom line

Hand arthritis doesn’t mean the end of your flexibility, functionality, or doing what you love. Use these hand exercises to take back control and ensure a healthy, sustainable recovery. 

Remember that exercises, diets, and treatments are daily activities — and even if you aren’t feeling symptoms at the moment, it’s still important to keep up with your plan.

Remember to talk to your physician, and check out our Broad Spectrum Topical Relief Cream to help with hand mobility and other areas of tension. 


Overview of Arthritis | NIH

Hand exercises for arthritis | Columbia Doctors

7 Hand Exercises to Prevent Arthritis | AARP

Cannabidiol as a treatment for arthritis and joint pain: an exploratory cross-sectional study | NIH

Difference Between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis | University of Michigan Health