Hand exercises? Yeah, I scroll for hours on my phone. But did you know they can help alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?
The joints in your fingers are prime targets for RA, though the disease can impact any of your joints. Common hand issues for people with RA are:
- warm and tender joints that are tender to the touch
- misshapen finger joints
A 1999 study focused on hand function and the ability for people with RA to complete activities of daily living, like getting dressed and using the restroom. The researchers found that over a 5 year period, the women experienced significant decreases in functional use of their hands, including significantly worse performance on the Grip Ability Test, the Keitel Function Test, and 3 questions on the Health Assessment Questionnaire. Interestingly, the only significant change in men was an increase in performance on the Grip Ability Test. And, over 25% of each gender developed an additional handicap over the 5 year period.
Taking care of your hands matters
Do hand exercises improve RA symptoms?
As with any exercise regimen, it needs to be both safe and effective to be a good addition to a treatment plan. It is always a good idea to bring up hand exercises with your doctor – they may have tips, high-quality exercises, or concerns to discuss with you.
In 1991, some experts on occupational therapy ran a randomized study that explored the value of hand exercises — they also had a group for wax therapy which is (as it sounds) dipping your hands in hot wax multiple times per day. The researchers found that hand exercise “reduced stiffness and pain with non-resisted motion and increased [range of motion].” And, for those with a few too many candles at home, performing wax therapy before the hand exercises further improved range of motion and grip function.
This wax therapy sounds amazing
The researchers explain in the Methods section exactly what those in the wax therapy group went through during each session, and it sounds pretty good. Sign me up! From the paper:
Both hands were slowly dipped five times into a 47 to 50°C wax bath, then wrapped in paper and fitted in quilt mittens, in which they were kept for 20 minutes.
Type of hand exercises that help most
Further studies have looked into using hand exercises to be most beneficial to people with RA. A 2006 study on the subject gave three groups of people information on joint protection. Two of the groups then received different hand exercises to perform at home. Those exercises focused on strengthening or stretching.
The cohort that completed hand strengthening exercises had significantly better scores on the Arthritis Impact Measurement Scales II. In general, hand exercises emphasizing strengthening movements provided “statistically significant improvements in arm function.”
A 2009 study looked into the effectiveness of a conservative exercise program compared to a more intense program. The study found that the intensive program was more effective at improving hand function, and was still well tolerated by the participants with RA. Interestingly, there was a trend for the group performing less intense hand exercises to have MORE pain!
Top 3 hand exercises to turn your kitchen table into your gym!
- Rest your forearm on the table palms up, fingers extended
- Curl your fingers up in to a gentle fist
- Repeat 10x per hand
- Hold your hands out in front of you (or rest your elbows lightly on a table), palms down
- Make a light fist with your hands
- From the wrist, make slow clockwise motions with your hand
- Repeat 10x
- Switch to counter-clockwise motions and repeat
Pull the Card
- Hold a playing card between your thumb and index finger of your right hand
- With your left hand, lightly try to pull the card free for 3 seconds
- Repeat with every finger on your right hand
- Complete the entire sequence again for the left hand