What are exercises that will help with my stiff hands?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’m bothered by pain and stiffness in my hands. It’s nothing significant, but enough to interfere with some tasks. Are there any exercises that might help?

DEAR READER:

You never realize how many different and essential things you do with your hands until something happens to them. Pain, stiffness or swollen joints can transform even a simple task into a painful ordeal. And millions of people have problems using their hands.

Fortunately, the right exercises may help. Start by asking your doctor if you should work with a hand therapist — an occupational or physical therapist who has specialized education and training in hand rehabilitation.

The first thing the therapist will do is evaluate your hand’s range of motion and strength, as well as any pain, swelling or physical limitations. Based on these observations, he or she will suggest specific exercises to suit your needs.

When a joint hurts, you use it less — and thereby experience less pain. So far, so good. But when you don’t use a joint, it tends to stiffen further. Sometimes it gets “frozen” and can no longer do everything it once did.

Take your thumb, for example. Hold your hands straight out in front of you, palms down. Spread the fingers wide apart and point the tips of your thumbs as far as they will go up toward the ceiling. Now with the tip of the thumb touch the very bottom of the little finger of the same hand. If you could not do that, the full range of motion of your thumbs has been lost. And you may have trouble doing many things each day that you previously took for granted, such as opening a jar.

Exercises can help increase the range of motion of a joint such as a thumb. The exercises involve gentle stretching (a little pain, but worth the gain).

The exercises also involve strengthening the muscles that move the joint. Put a finger on the skin below the base of your thumb. Now with the tip of the thumb touch the bottom of your little finger again, and feel what’s happening under the skin. You can feel the muscle that moves your thumb get thick and tense. That’s because it’s working.

But when you avoid using your thumb and fingers, the muscles that move them get weak. To regain the full use of your hand, you may need exercises to strengthen muscles that have weakened from disuse.

If you do repetitive tasks, such as typing or gripping gardening tools, your muscles may shorten and become tight and painful. Stretching exercises help lengthen your muscles and tendons. These exercises are particularly helpful for people who work at computers for long time periods.

Here are illustrations and descriptions of a few exercises commonly recommended for hand and wrist problems:

Wrist extension and flexion:

wrist_extension_and_flexion

          1. 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.
          2. Move the hand upward until you feel a gentle stretch.
          3. Return to the starting position.
          4. Repeat the same motions with the elbow bent at your side, palm facing up.

 

 

Thumb flexion/extension:

thumb_flexion-extension

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

 

 

 

 

 

Wrist extensor stretch:

writer extenser

          1. Begin with a bent elbow.
          2. With the other hand, grasp the thumb side of the hand and bend your wrist downward.
          3. To increase the stretch, bend your wrist toward your little finger.
          4. Repeat the same exercise with a straight arm.

 

 

 

 

 Wrist flexor stretch:

HND1112-18

  1. Begin with a bent elbow.
  2. Grasp the fingers of that hand with the other.
  3. Pull the hand back gently.
  4. Repeat the same exercise with a straight arm.

 

 

 

Perform these exercises slowly and deliberately to avoid pain and injury. If you feel numbness or sharp pain during or after exercising, stop and contact your doctor. Usually, however, careful and regular exercises yield only benefits.