Hand stiffness may be caused by injury or chronic medical conditions. Treatment options include medications, wearing a splint, surgery, and some exercises like finger touches and sliding.
Stiff hands may cause feelings of discomfort and can make performing daily tasks more difficult.
In this article, we break down some of the causes of hand stiffness, potential treatment options, and seven hand stretches that you can try out at home for pain relief.
The causes of hand stiffness range from mild injuries to chronic health conditions.
Arthritis can impact any joint in your body, including the joints in your hands. The most common symptoms of arthritis include stiffness, pain, and swelling.
There are several different types of arthritis, which may affect your hands differently.
- Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis. It’s caused by the wear and tear that happens to a joint due to aging, overuse, or injury. The most commonly affected joints in your hands are:
- where the thumb and the wrist meet
- closest to your fingertip
- the middle of your finger
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition where your immune system attacks the tissues of your joints. RA begins in the small joints of your body. It typically affects both hands.
- Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) happens due to an autoimmune skin condition called psoriasis. PsA causes joint pain and swelling with skin inflammation and scaly patches. Finger and toe joints are often affected.
Stenosing tenosynovitis is the medical term for trigger finger and trigger thumb. It happens when the tendons in your fingers, or the canal through which the tendons run, become inflamed. This can cause the affected finger to feel “stuck,” to “click,” or to “catch.”
Your finger may also sometimes become stuck in a bent position. This can require using your other hand to straighten the finger out.
Dupuytren contracture is when your fingers begin to fold down toward your palm. This happens when the tissue under the skin of your fingers and palm gets thicker. The fourth and fifth fingers are most often affected.
This condition is usually mild and progresses slowly. However, in severe cases, it may be difficult to straighten any of the affected fingers.
Stiffness can occur after you injure your hand. This can happen due to things like inflammation, scarring, or damage to ligaments and tendons. Common causes of hand injury include a fall, blow, or sports injury.
A healthcare professional will first take your medical history and perform an examination of your hand. This can involve observing the appearance of your hand or testing the range of motion of your fingers or wrist.
They may also order other tests to help them make a diagnosis.
For example, they may use an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to help them view the tissues of your hand. Blood tests may also help detect underlying health conditions that could be causing stiffness, such as RA and PsA.
Treatment for hand stiffness will depend on several factors, including:
- the cause of the stiffness
- the severity of your symptoms
- your age and overall health
Below are different types of treatment. These may be used in combination as part of your treatment plan.
- fish oil
- green tea
- willow bark
- devil’s claw
It’s important to note that there’s not enough research to prove these methods are effective.
Additionally, some natural treatments may not be appropriate for certain health conditions or could pose side effects. Talk with a doctor before using them.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications
Some OTC non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may help reduce pain and inflammation. These include:
- ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- naproxen (Aleve)
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
A doctor may prescribe a medication to help reduce inflammation and prevent further joint damage if your hand stiffness is caused by RA or PsA. Some medications include:
- COX-2 inhibitors, such as such as celecoxib or etoricoxib
- disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), such as methotrexate and sulphasalazine
Splints and casts
Splints and casts help stabilize a joint when it’s painful, which may be due to overuse, surgery, or injury. Wearing a splint or cast for too long can cause muscles to weaken. You may have to do hand exercises when it’s removed.
Steroid injections may help ease inflammation, stiffness, and pain in a joint for several weeks when OTC medications aren’t effective.
However, they can only be given a limited number of times because of potential side effects, including weakening of tendons and ligaments.
Injections of an enzyme called collagenase may help treat Dupuytren contracture. The injection helps soften and weaken the thickened tissue in your hand. After 1 or 2 days, the doctor can apply various movements to break up the tissue.
A doctor may recommend surgery if other treatment methods haven’t worked to alleviate stiffness.
The type of procedure will depend on what’s causing your symptoms. The doctor will work with you to discuss your surgery options, pros and cons, and what to expect.
After hand surgery, it’s likely that your hand will be immobilized using a splint or cast as it heals. You’ll then need to do exercises to help restore strength and range of motion to the affected hand.
The following exercises may help decrease joint pain, keep your fingers limber, and increase your productivity and independence.
1. Flex and bend
Steady your arm by placing your bent elbow on a table or armrest. Keep your wrist straight. Begin by bending your fingers down and back up.
After completing several repetitions of finger bends, slowly make a fist with your hand and hold it for 10 seconds. Then, flex your fingers upward as if you were going to catch a baseball and hold for 10 seconds.
Work slowly and smoothly. The inflammation in the small joints of your fingers may make flexing and bending difficult. Try warming your hands before beginning.
2. Finger touches
Begin with your palm facing up and your fingers fully extended. Bend your thumb and stretch it across your palm until you touch your pinky finger. Hold for 5 seconds, then bring your thumb back to its original position.
Continue to touch the rest of your fingers in succession. Remember to return to the neutral position with your palm facing up between each finger touch.
3. Finger sliding
Place your palm down on a table. Your fingers should be spread apart. Slide your index finger toward your thumb without bending it. Continue the exercise by sliding each of your fingers toward your thumb. When you’ve finished, return your fingers to the starting position.
4. Gentle fist
Start by relaxing your arm on a table or armrest. Clasp your fingers together into a gentle fist, making sure that your thumb is wrapped around all of your fingers. Hold this position for 45 seconds, then release your fingers and spread them wide.
5. Fingertip stretch
Place your relaxed hand on a table or a flat surface. Slowly stretch your fingers until they straighten and your hand is completely flattened. Keep your hand flat against the table for 30–60 seconds.
6. Grip strengthener
Take a small, soft ball and squeeze it tightly in your hand. Hold it for a few seconds, then release. Repeat this for 45 seconds per hand. After completing the stretch, rest your hand for 1–2 days.
7. Pinch strengthener
Take a small, soft ball and pinch it between your fingers and thumb. Hold the ball in place for 30–60 seconds before releasing. Rest your hand for 1–2 days after completing this stretch.
Speak with a healthcare professional if you have hand stiffness that:
- happens after an injury
- occurs along with persistent pain and swelling
- impacts the range of motion of your wrist or fingers
- doesn’t get better or gets worse with at-home care
- significantly affects your ability to do daily activities
A doctor will help determine the cause of your hand stiffness and can recommend an appropriate treatment plan.
What are stiff fingers a symptom of?
Stiff fingers may be caused by injury or several health conditions, including:
- Dupuytren contracture
- trigger finger
How do you relieve a stiff trigger finger?
Treatment for a stiff trigger finger will depend on its severity. Sometimes, it can heal on its own with rest. However, other interventions may be needed, such as:
- gentle exercises
- wearing a splint
- corticosteroid injections
Speak with a doctor if your trigger finger isn’t getting better after resting it.
What are the first signs of arthritis in fingers?
The first signs of arthritis in your fingers may include pain, swelling, and stiffness in your finger joints. You may also have bumps on your finger joints.
Hand and finger stiffness may cause discomfort, pain, and a decreased range of motion.
Speak with a doctor if your stiff hands are causing discomfort and interrupting your daily activities. They’ll be able to diagnose the cause and help develop a treatment plan that’s right for you.
Gentle hand stretches can also help improve flexibility and range of motion in your hands.