Dealing with Arthritis in Your Hands? These Treatment Tips and Exercises Can Help

Changes in hand function may be caused by arthritis. Follow these PT-approved treatment tips and hand arthritis exercises to improve your dexterity.

elderly-woman-checking-her-hands

Dealing with Arthritis in Your Hands? These Treatment Tips and Exercises Can Help

Changes in hand function may be caused by arthritis. Follow these PT-approved treatment tips and hand arthritis exercises to improve your dexterity.

elderly-woman-checking-her-hands

Dealing with Arthritis in Your Hands? These Treatment Tips and Exercises Can Help

Changes in hand function may be caused by arthritis. Follow these PT-approved treatment tips and hand arthritis exercises to improve your dexterity.

elderly-woman-checking-her-hands

Dealing with Arthritis in Your Hands? These Treatment Tips and Exercises Can Help

Changes in hand function may be caused by arthritis. Follow these PT-approved treatment tips and hand arthritis exercises to improve your dexterity.

elderly-woman-checking-her-hands
Table of Contents

Do your hands ache when you pull weeds in your yard? Having more trouble opening jars? Can’t seem to close the small buttons on your jacket anymore? It’s possible that arthritis may be playing a role in these changes in your hand function. While arthritis isn’t the only problem that can cause finger and hand problems of course, it is a common culprit. Fortunately, treatment can help a lot. 

Here, learn more about hand arthritis — and find out how to feel better with tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Stewart is a Hinge Health physical therapist with over 8 years of experience. She is certified in myofascial trigger point therapy.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is Arthritis in the Hands?

Arthritis, by definition, means inflammation or swelling in the joints. It is sometimes confused with other conditions, such as tendinitis, which may also impact the hands. However, there are a few important distinctions. “With arthritis, the inflammation stems from the joint,” says Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. Tendinitis, by contrast, has to do with inflamed tendons, which are bands of fibrous tissue that connect muscle to bone.

Some people with hand arthritis only have it in a particular finger; for others, the pain might span several areas of the hand.

Hand Arthritis: A Hinge Health Perspective

Traditionally, treatment for hand arthritis involves medications, steroid injections, splinting, or surgery. While one or more of these approaches might be useful, in recent years a greater emphasis has been placed on treating arthritis through movement, says Dr. Stewart. While many doctors used to focus on imaging tests such as X-rays or MRIs — and some still do — the importance of such tests is often over-hyped, says Dr. Stewart.

Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT
One of the best ways to treat arthritis, no matter what it looks like on imaging scans, is almost always through movement.

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So if your first instinct when you experience hand arthritis pain is to limit your movement, think again. Targeted exercises and stretches can help keep cartilage healthy and strengthen weaker muscles that often accompany arthritis and contribute to pain.  

Hinge Health prioritizes real-life measures of functioning as well as your progress as you move through a program. “If you have had chronic hand pain for more than three months, a general hand exercise program can help you see noticeable improvements,” says Dr. Stewart. A physical therapist will tailor moves to your needs based on how you tolerate the exercises and whether or not they’re helping you feel better.

“What we’re looking at is function,” she says. “It’s really about what you can do now and what you want to be able to do in the future.”

Note: If your hand arthritis is due to a form of inflammatory arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor should refer you to a rheumatologist. Certain medications, known as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), have been shown to be very effective in preventing your immune system from attacking your joints.

Signs Your Hand Pain Is Arthritis

If you’ve had chronic hand pain for at least three months, you may be dealing with hand arthritis, says Dr. Stewart. Some signs of hand arthritis include:

  • Pain in your hands or fingers

  • Swelling in your hands or fingers (maybe your rings or watches no longer fit)

  • Weakness in your hands

  • Stiffness in your hands or fingers that is worse after using your hands a lot or first thing in the morning

It’s important to note that most people don’t need to get an exact diagnosis before talking to a physical therapist or starting an exercise program, says Dr. Stewart. If you have severe pain or recently injured your hand, however, it’s wise to see an orthopedist to rule out a fracture or other serious injury.

Causes of Hand Arthritis

The majority of people with arthritis in their hands have osteoarthritis (OA), says Dr. Stewart. This joint condition typically involves changes in the cartilage — the slippery, rubbery tissue that cushions joints. The joint lining and bones may also be impacted.

Another culprit: rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or other inflammatory forms of arthritis. With RA, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the tissue lining the joints (synovium). Unlike OA, which might occur in just one hand, RA tends to be symmetrical and impacts multiple joints throughout the body, so if you only have hand discomfort it’s less likely to be RA or another form of inflammatory or autoimmune arthritis.

Treatment Options for Hand Arthritis

Arthritis in the hands is common, but there are many things you can do to reduce your discomfort and improve your mobility. Your treatment plan may include one or more of the following:

Anti-inflammatory medication. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers in the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) class, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) are commonly used for mild arthritis pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history. If your doctor confirms that it’s safe for you to use these, they might provide short-term relief so you can engage in exercises that will have a longer pay-off, says Dr. Stewart. Keep in mind that even OTC meds may cause side effects. Topical NSAIDs tend to have fewer side effects than those taken orally. One such topical option, Voltaren Arthritis Pain, is now available over the counter. Check with your provider before using it (or any drug).

Heat. Warming up your hands can help relieve arthritis pain and stiffness because the heat increases blood flow to the affected area. Be careful to go for warmth rather than scalding heat. Try soaking your hands in a bowl of warm water or applying a warm compress or heating pad for 20 to 30 minutes up to three times a day.

Lifestyle tweaks. Since you need your hands for just about everything, a physical therapist can help you make specific, small changes that are designed to help your hands feel better without having to stop all your usual activities. For instance, your PT might show you how to hold things differently or distribute weight more evenly across your fingers, says Dr. Stewart. 

“The goal is to figure out how we can decrease some stress on the joints,” she says. “Maybe we’re changing how you’re carrying groceries by putting less in a single bag or carrying it with your whole hand instead of with a few fingers.”

Increased breaks. Listening to your body and taking breaks is another important part of lifestyle modification. Whether you’re knitting, driving long distances, or planting flowers, Dr. Stewart advises taking frequent breaks if these activities have led to hand pain in the past. “You should never have to stop doing what you love; it’s about finding a way to do it on your terms,” she says. 

Adaptive equipment. Your physical therapist might recommend using adaptive equipment to make everyday tasks easier because they allow you to engage larger joints to complete tasks that usually require more dexterity in smaller joints. If you’ve been having a hard time grasping your house key, for example, a key turner tool might help. Ice tongs can help you pick up things that aren’t as easy for you to grasp. A grip wrench can make opening jars less of a hassle.

Hand exercises. These are the cornerstone of physical therapy. A hand arthritis physical therapy program will help you gradually strengthen your hands and get more comfortable with greater range of motion. Your physical therapist can tailor your exercises to your specific needs. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via a telehealth or video visit.

Exercises for Hand Arthritis

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Many people with hand arthritis have it in their thumb — this exercise engages the muscles needed to grip which is crucial for many everyday activities, says Dr. Stewart.

When someone has chronic hand pain that likely stems from arthritis, Hinge Health therapists typically start by recommending these basic moves. They all work to strengthen the muscles your hands need to tackle everyday tasks with control and confidence.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Start Hand Exercises Early

Get started with PT at the first sign of joint inflammation. Don’t brush it off as not a big deal or wait until the pain worsens to take it seriously. Early intervention for chronic hand pain is key, says Dr. Stewart. “I’m a huge proponent of ‘use it or lose it,’ as you get so much benefit from starting exercise early and maintaining motion.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Arthritis Types. February 20, 2029. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/types.html

  2. Pidgeon, T.S. March 2023. Arthritis of the Hand. OrthoInfo. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/arthritis-of-the-hand/ 

  3. Stepan, J.G. May 19, 2021. What are the signs of arthritis in the hands? UChicago Medicine. https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/forefront/orthopaedics-articles/how-to-treat-arthritis-in-the-hands

  4. Rath, L. June 9, 2022. What Is Arthritis? Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/what-is-arthritis 

  5. Rheumatoid Arthritis: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments and More. October 15, 2021. Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/diseases/rheumatoid-arthritis

  6. Wisely, R. May 21, 2019. How Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis Differ. Michigan Medicine. https://www.michiganmedicine.org/health-lab/how-osteoarthritis-and-rheumatoid-arthritis-differ

  7. Pendergast, T. February 8, 2023. Assistive Devices for Arthritis of the Hands: Protecting Your Joints. Hospital for Special Surgery. https://www.hss.edu/conditions_assistive-devices-for-the-hand-small-joint-protection.asp 

  8. Topical NSAIDs Offer Joint Pain Relief. (n.d.). Arthritis Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.arthritis.org/drug-guide/medication-topics/topical-nsaids-offer-joint-pain-relief

  9. Osteoarthritis: Heat and Cold Therapy. March 9, 2022. My Health Alberta. https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/Pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=hw125087 

Table of Contents
What Is Arthritis in the Hands?Hand Arthritis: A Hinge Health PerspectiveSigns Your Hand Pain Is ArthritisCauses of Hand ArthritisTreatment Options for Hand ArthritisPT Tip: Start Hand Exercises EarlyHow Hinge Health Can Help YouReferences