Stiff Fingers? Feel Better With These PT-Approved Tips and Exercises

Learn what causes stiff fingers and how to restore hand mobility with exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: Jun 28, 2024
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If you’ve ever experienced stiff fingers, you know how frustrating it can be when you don’t have full range of motion in your hands. “Stiff fingers impact all of your activities, whether it’s writing with a pen, turning a door knob, or carrying groceries,” says Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health.

While there are many different causes of finger stiffness, they all share one thing in common: Most of the time, the stiffness and discomfort you’re feeling can be managed with simple remedies like finger exercises, heat therapy, and activity modification.

Read on to learn more about what causes stiff fingers, and how to find relief with tips and exercises from 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.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

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Why Are My Fingers Stiff?

“The main reason your fingers are stiff is usually because something is occurring to constrict their movement,” explains Dr. Stewart. Often people notice stiff fingers in the morning after they’ve gone a long time without movement. But there are many reasons why you can experience stiff fingers at any time of day, including:

  • Finger arthritis. When the small joints in your fingers become inflamed and irritated as the result of arthritis, it can lead to joint stiffness. There are several different forms of arthritis, but the most common one to cause stiff fingers is osteoarthritis, says Dr. Stewart. Rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis can also cause these symptoms. “Any form of arthritis in your finger joints causes swelling, which gives your finger joints less space to move, leading to stiffness,” explains Dr. Stewart.

  • Trigger finger. This is a condition in which your finger or thumb gets stuck in a curled position towards the palm of your hand, like it’s trying to pull a trigger. It happens when a tendon in your palm becomes inflamed. “Tendons normally glide through a sheath, but when the area is irritated and swollen, the tendon can become ‘stuck,’” explains Dr. Stewart.

  • Dupuytren’s Contracture. This condition looks similar to trigger finger but involves the thickening of the fascia (a sheath of connective tissue) in the palm of the hand. As the fascia thickens and shortens, it can cause one or more fingers to curl in toward the palm (this is “contracture”). “The connective tissue that helps move your fingers gets stiff, which makes it hard to straighten your fingers or thumb,” says Dr. Stewart.

  • Tendinitis (tendonitis). Like any other tendon in your body, the tendons in your hands and fingers can become inflamed. “This causes swelling, which takes up space and makes it harder for your fingers to go through their full range of motion,” explains Dr. Stewart. This can be especially problematic when tendons pass through tight tunnels in your fingers or at your wrist.

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome. When one of the major nerves in your hand, the median nerve, becomes compressed as it travels through your wrist, it can cause carpal tunnel syndrome. Since this nerve controls the muscles that help you move your fingers, it can also lead to stiffness.

  • Type 2 Diabetes. The condition can lead to neuropathy, or changes in nerve sensation and motor control in your hands and feet that lead to your fingers feeling stiff.

No matter what’s causing your stiff fingers, symptoms tend to come on gradually. “One of the first things people often notice with stiff fingers is that they have trouble doing simple tasks that require them to open or close their fingers,” explains Dr. Stewart. As a result, it may become harder to grasp an item, or let it go. Over time, you may also notice pain, swelling, and difficulty using your fingers in their full range of motion.

Treatment Options for Stiff Fingers

Finger stiffness is common, but there are many things you can do to loosen up your digits and improve your hand mobility. Here’s how to relieve stiff hands and fingers:

  • Hand exercises. This should be the first step in any treatment program, says Dr. Stewart. “Your fingers are such an important part of your overall functioning, so it’s really important to learn how to stretch them and work through different movements,” she explains. If necessary, a physical therapy program can help to strengthen and stretch your fingers and improve their range of motion. A 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 telehealth/video visit.

  • Heat. Dr. Stewart recommends using heat to warm stiff fingers. “Heat can help relieve stiffness because it increases blood flow to your hands and fingers,” she explains. She recommends that you soak your hands in a bowl of warm water, or even use a paraffin warm bath to apply soothing heat to fingers. Another option is a contrast bath, in which you alternate between submerging your hand in warm and cold water. Research suggests that this technique may increase blood flow and reduce swelling to promote healing.

  • Lifestyle tweaks. While you work to increase your mobility, you may find it hard to do everyday activities. A physical therapist can help you make specific, small changes that will allow you to continue to do them, without causing pain or discomfort to your fingers. “I might encourage a patient to shift carrying a grocery bag to their palm, rather than their fingers, or use adaptive devices to pick up objects,” says Dr. Stewart. “It can help relieve strain on finger joints until they’re stronger.”

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for pain from stiff fingers. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history. 

  • Finger splints. This may be a short-term option in situations where it’s otherwise too difficult to do daily activities, especially those related to your work. “A finger splint may help reduce inflammation, so that you can comfortably use your fingers again,” explains Dr. Stewart. Just don’t use it for more than a few days: “You want to focus on movement, not the immobilizing effect of a brace,” she says.

PT-Recommended Exercises for Stiff Fingers

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Hand Tendon Glides
  • Towel Squeeze
  • Finger Extensions
  • Hook Hands
  • Towel Wringing
  • Finger Abduction

These stretching and strengthening moves are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists to both treat and prevent stiff fingers. They also work more generally to help keep your fingers, hands, and wrists strong and flexible. Exercises like these strengthen, stretch, and improve mobility in the fingers and encourage and enable your fingers and thumbs to move through their full range of motion.

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: Work Through Movement

“A lot of times, when people develop stiff fingers, they avoid using their hands for more strenuous tasks,” says Dr. Stewart. “But if you don’t take care of finger stiffness, it will worsen.” If you struggle to get through day-to-day activities, Dr. Stewart recommends that you warm up your stiff fingers by doing a few of the exercises listed above. This will increase blood flow to fingers and reduce stiffness, so you’ll feel more comfortable as you go about your daily routine. 

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. Jeanmonod, R., Harberger, S., & Waseem, M. (2021). Trigger Finger. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459310/ 

  2. Joshi, A., Patel, K., Mohamed, A., Oak, S., Zhang, M. H., Hsiung, H., Zhang, A., & Patel, U. K. (2022). Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Pathophysiology and Comprehensive Guidelines for Clinical Evaluation and Treatment. Cureus, 14(7). doi:10.7759/cureus.27053

  3. Fuggle, N. R., Bere, N., Olivier Bruyère, Rosa, M. M., Prieto, C., Dennison, E. M., Fitnat Dincer, Gabay, C., Haugen, I. K., Herrero-Beaumont, G., Mickaël Hiligsmann, Hochberg, M. C., Laslop, A., Matijevic, R., Maheu, E., Migliore, A., Pelletier, J.-P., Régis Radermecker, François Rannou, & Brigitte Florence Uebelhart. (2022). Management of hand osteoarthritis: from an US evidence-based medicine guideline to a European patient-centric approach. Aging Clinical and Experimental Research, 34(9), 1985–1995. doi:10.1007/s40520-022-02176-y

  4. Walthall, J., Anand, P., & Rehman, U. H. (2020). Dupuytren's Contracture. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526074/ 

  5. Shadgan, B., Pakravan, A. H., Hoens, A., & Reid, W. D. (2018). Contrast Baths, Intramuscular Hemodynamics, and Oxygenation as Monitored by Near-Infrared Spectroscopy. Journal of Athletic Training, 53(8), 782–787. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-127-17

  6. Blazar, P. E., & Aggarwal, R. (2019). Trigger finger (stenosing flexor tenosynovitis). UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/trigger-finger-stenosing-flexor-tenosynovitis 

  7. Boyce, T. R. (2020, July 6). 10 Causes of Stiff Fingers. The American Society for Surgery of the Hand. https://www.assh.org/handcare/blog/10-causes-of-stiff-fingers