Exercises that stretch the hand and fingers, such as finger touches and making a gentle fist, can help prevent hand stiffness. Other treatments can help but may depend on the underlying cause.
There are many things that can cause stiffness to happen in your hands. When your hands are stiff, you may experience feelings of discomfort and it can also be more difficult to do daily tasks.
You may be wondering about what you can do to prevent or ease hand stiffness. In some cases, doing hand exercises may help.
Below, we’ll break down some of the causes of hand stiffness, potential treatment options, and seven hand stretches that you can try out at home.
Many of the causes of hand stiffness are due to conditions that impact the joints and connective tissue in your hands. You can also experience stiffness after an injury or surgery.
Below, we’ll look at some of the possible causes of hand stiffness in greater detail.
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.
We often use the term “arthritis” to refer to joint pain. However, there are actually many different types of arthritis. A few that you may have heard of include:
- Osteoarthritis (OA). 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 the hands are:
- where the thumb and the wrist meet
- closest to your fingertip
- the middle of your finger
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA is an autoimmune condition where your immune system attacks the tissues of your joints. RA most often begins in the small joints of your body, which can include those in your hands. Often, both of your hands are affected.
- Psoriatic arthritis (PsA). Like RA, PsA also happens due to an autoimmune condition. PsA causes joint pain and swelling with skin inflammation and scaly skin patches (psoriasis). Finger and toe joints are often affected.
Stenosing tenosynovitis is the medical term for trigger finger and trigger thumb.
In these conditions, tissue around the tendons in your finger becomes enlarged, causing the canal the tendon runs through to shrink and make your finger feel “stuck.” This can make movement of the affected finger difficult or painful.
In some cases, a finger can become stuck in a bent position. This can often require you to use your other hand to help straighten the finger out. Locking or stiffness can be worse after a long period of not using your hand, such as after waking up in the morning.
Stenosing tenosynovitis can be caused by activities that involve frequent, forceful use of the fingers or thumb.
It can also happen due to the effects of other underlying health conditions like RA, diabetes, or carpal tunnel syndrome. Some autoimmune diseases (like RA) could cause inflammation to contribute to symptoms.
Dupuytren’s contracture happens due to the thickening of the tissue under the skin of your fingers and palm. When this happens, your fingers begin to fold down toward your palm. The fourth and fifth fingers are most often affected.
Typically, this condition is mild and progresses very slowly. However, in severe cases, it can be difficult to straighten any of the affected fingers.
What exactly causes Dupuytren’s contracture to happen is still unknown. It’s believed that genetics plays a role. According to a study,
It’s also associated with risk factors like alcohol use and underlying conditions such as diabetes.
Stiffness can also occur after you injure your hand. This can happen due to things like inflammation, scarring, or damage to ligaments and tendons. Some common causes of hand injury include things like a fall, blow, or sports injury.
In order to diagnose the cause of your hand stiffness, your doctor 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.
It’s likely that they’ll also use imaging to help them view the condition of the tissues of your hand. This can include using X-rays and MRI scans.
Your doctor may also order blood tests. These can detect underlying health conditions that may be causing stiffness, such as RA and PsA.
The treatment options for hand stiffness can depend on several factors, including:
- what’s causing the stiffness to occur
- the severity of your symptoms and their impact on your daily life
- your age and overall health
It’s likely that your doctor will first want to start with conservative treatments, such as exercise and medications. When these aren’t effective, your doctor may recommend surgery.
Now let’s explore some potential treatment options for hand stiffness.
There is very limited research about natural treatments for hand stiffness, and you should always ask your doctor before trying any method to treat pain. For medical emergencies, always go to your doctor or use local emergency services.
There are several natural treatments that could potentially help with stiffness, inflammation, or pain in your hands. Some examples include:
- fish oil
- green tea
- willow bark
- devil’s claw
Additionally, some natural treatments may not be appropriate for certain conditions or may have side effects, so always talk to your doctor before using them.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications
Some OTC medications may be used to address stiffness or pain that happens due to inflammation. Examples of OTC medications can include:
- ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- naproxen (Aleve)
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
If your hand stiffness is due to RA or PsA, your doctor can prescribe a medication to help reduce your symptoms. Taking these medications as directed can also help to prevent additional joint damage.
Splints and casts
Splints and casts help to stabilize a joint and can be worn when a stiff joint is painful. They’re also often used in cases of overuse, surgery, or injury. Wearing a splint or cast for too long can cause muscles to weaken, so it’s likely you’ll be asked to do hand exercises when it’s removed.
Steroid injections can help to ease inflammation in a joint when OTC medications aren’t effective. These injections can alleviate stiffness and pain due to inflammation for several weeks.
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 be used to help treat Dupuytren’s contracture. This causes the thickened tissue in the hand to soften and weaken. After numbing your hand to pain, your doctor can then apply various movements to break up the tissue.
When more conservative treatment methods haven’t worked to alleviate stiffness, your doctor may recommend surgery. The type of procedure that’s used depends on what’s causing your symptoms.
Your 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.
Simple stretches and exercises can help reduce stiffness. Try the following three exercises to 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 for 10 seconds. Then, flex your fingers upward as if you were going to catch a baseball and hold for 10 seconds.
Remember to work slowly and smoothly. The inflammation in the small joints of your fingers may make flexing and bending difficult at times. Try warming your hands before beginning.
2. Finger touches
Begin with your palm facing up and your fingers fully extended (straightened). Bend your thumb and stretch it across your palm until you touch your pinky finger. After holding for 5 seconds, 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 about 45 seconds, and 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 to 60 seconds.
6. Grip strengthener
To practice grip strength, take a small, soft ball and squeeze it tightly in your hand. Hold it for a few seconds, then release. Repeat this for about 45 seconds per hand. Rest your hand for about 1 to 2 days after completing this stretch.
7. Pinch strengthener
Pinch strengthening works by taking a small, soft ball and pinching it in between your fingers and thumb. Hold the ball in place for about 30 to 60 seconds before releasing. Rest your hand for about 1 to 2 days after completing this stretch.
It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor 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 day-to-day activities
Many causes of hand stiffness can be controlled through exercises, medication, or lifestyle changes. After determining what’s causing your hand stiffness, your doctor can recommend an appropriate course of treatment.
Some of the potential causes of hand stiffness include arthritis, stenosing tenosynovitis, and hand injuries. When your hand or fingers are stiff, you may also experience pain and a decreased range of motion.
There are many treatments for stiff hands, including medications, splints or casts, and injections. Gentle hand stretches can also help you to improve flexibility and range of motion in your hands.
Remember that each person is different. The hand exercises that are right for you might not be most effective for another person’s pain or hand stiffness. Talk with your doctor to discuss your treatment plan and determine which exercises are right for you.