Stretching, strengthening, and range-of-motion exercises can help relieve pain and prevent injury.
Painful hands can affect everything from the way we work and play to how we communicate and express ourselves. The most common cause of hand pain is arthritis. Another is carpal tunnel syndrome, a nerve impingement in the wrist that may cause numbness and finger weakness. Both of these disorders disproportionately affect women.
The work we do often places stress and strain on the tendons of the wrists and hands. A lot of repetitive stress injury is produced by today's computer-heavy workplace, with its long hours, rapid pace, repeated motions, awkward postures, overly forceful movements, and limited breaks. The hands can be injured especially by sustained gripping of a computer mouse, incorrect keyboard position, and motions such as typing or entering figures on a calculator.
Devices such as cell phones, smart phones, electronic planners, and digital music players are another source of hand and wrist complaints. According to the American Society of Hand Therapists, the heavy use of such devices, which often require prolonged gripping and typing with the thumbs, could result in carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis. But even low-tech activities, like weeding, digging, and home repair, can put stress on the hands and wrists.
How exercises can help
If your symptoms aren't severe, your clinician may recommend stretching and strengthening exercises as part of a program that includes rest, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, and changes in your home or work environment.
Stretching helps increase a joint's range of motion or lengthen the muscle and its associated tendons; strengthening activities give the muscles around the joint more power or endurance. But these exercises should be avoided when joints are inflamed or painful. If you have a debilitating condition of the hand, wrist, or arm, it's best to get a clinician's advice before starting an exercise program.
Do the following exercises slowly and deliberately. If you feel numbness or pain during or after any of them, stop and consult your clinician.
If your range of motion is impaired, you may have trouble performing ordinary actions such as opening a jar. These exercises help move your wrist and fingers through a normal range of motion using the specific functions of all the tendons in the hand. For each exercise, 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 ulnar/radial deviation. Support your forearm on a table, with your hand held on its side, thumb up. Rest your wrist on a small towel. Move your wrist up and down through its full range of motion.
Thumb flexion. Begin with the thumb positioned outward. Move it across the palm and back to the starting position.
Hand/finger tendon glide. Start with the fingers extended straight up (a). Make a hook fist (b); straighten the hand (a). Make a full fist (c); straighten the hand (a). Make a straight fist (d); straighten the hand (a). Repeat. Hold each position for five to 10 seconds. Keep the wrist straight throughout.
Repetitive tasks can shorten the muscles and make them tight and painful. The following exercises are particularly helpful for tendinitis and tight forearm muscles. Do them gently; you should feel a stretch but not pain. For each one, do four repetitions, twice a day. Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and rest for 30 seconds after each repetition.
Wrist extensor stretch. Standing or seated, begin with the elbow bent at your side. With the other hand, grasp the thumb side of the hand and bend your wrist down. To increase the stretch, rotate your wrist slightly toward your little finger. Repeat with the arm held straight out.
Wrist flexor stretch. Begin with a bent elbow. Grasp the fingers of that hand with the other one and pull back gently. Repeat with the arm held straight out.