Workout for Aching Hands

Content provided by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School

Exercises for the Hands

Therapists recommend specific exercises to treat specific conditions. Some exercises help increase a joint's range of motion or lengthen the muscle and its associated tendons (musculotendinous unit) via stretching; these are helpful for osteoarthritis as well as tennis elbow and golfer's elbow—but not when the joints are inflamed or painful. Other exercises strengthen muscles around a joint to generate more power or to give that specific body part greater endurance. These are helpful for resolving tendinitis and non-painful arthritis conditions.

The following examples describe some commonly recommended exercises for people with hand and wrist problems. But if you have a painful or debilitating hand, wrist, or arm condition, it's best to get specific exercise recommendations from a therapist, rather than doing them on your own. All exercises should be done slowly and deliberately, to avoid pain and injury. If you feel numbness or pain during or after exercising, stop and consult a therapist.

Range-of-motion exercises

Your muscles and tendons move the joints through arcs of motion, as when you bend and straighten your fingers. If your normal range of motion is impaired—if you can't bend your thumb without pain, for example—you may have trouble doing ordinary things like opening a jar. These exercises move your wrist and fingers through their normal ranges of motion and require all the hand's tendons to perform their specific functions. Hold each position for 5–10 seconds. Do one set of 10 repetitions, three times a day.

Wrist extension and flexion. Place your forearm on a table with your hand over the edge, palm down. Rest your wrist on a small towel. Move your hand up until you feel a gentle stretch, and return it to the starting position. Repeat the same motions with the palm facing up.

Wrist extension and flexion

  • Place your forearm on a table on a rolled-up towel for padding with your hand hanging off the edge of the table, palm down.
  • Move the hand upward until you feel a gentle stretch.
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Repeat the same motions with the elbow bent at your side, palm facing up.

Wrist supination/pronation.

Wrist supination and pronation

  • Stand or sit with your arm at your side with the elbow bent to 90 degrees, palm facing down.
  • Rotate your forearm, so that your palm faces up and then down.

  • Wrist ulnar/radial deviation.

    Wrist ulnar/radial deviation

    • Support your forearm on a table on a rolled-up towel for padding or on your knee, thumb upward.
    • Move the wrist up and down through its full range of motion.

    Thumb flexion.

    Thumb flexion

    • Begin with your thumb positioned outward.
    • Move the thumb across the palm and back to the starting position.

    Hand/finger tendon glide.

    Hand/finger tendon glide

    • Start with the fingers extended straight out.
    • Make a hook fist; return to a straight hand.
    • Make a full fist; return to a straight hand.
    • Make a straight fist; return to a straight hand.

    Strengthening exercises

    By holding light weights (1–3 pounds) during the first three range-of-motion exercises, you can begin a gentle strengthening program. Increase the weight gradually over time, making sure you can control the motion while holding the weight within a normal (or recommended) range of motion. Begin with one set of 10. If you don't experience any pain over the following 24 hours, gradually build up to doing three sets of 10, as tolerated, exercising every other day. Make sure the exercise is not painful or causing any numbness. Do the exercises slowly and deliberately, holding the positions for a count of 10. Be sure to do these only every other day, because your muscles need a 24-hour period of rest.

    Stretching exercises

    Stretching helps maximize the length of a muscle-tendon unit. If you do repetitive tasks, such as typing on a computer or gripping gardening tools, your muscles may shorten and become tight and painful. Do these stretches gently, to the point where you feel the stretch but it is not painful. Hold the positions for a count of 15 to 30 seconds to get the most benefit. These exercises are particularly helpful for tendinitis and tight forearm muscles, which are common in people who work at computers for long time periods.

    Reference: Arthritis section on Better Medicine