Gentle hand stretches and strengthening activities can reduce stiffness and help me feel a sense of self-efficacy.

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When you experience hand pain, simple tasks suddenly become difficult. When I was 21 years old, I could barely hold onto my hair brush or spread peanut butter onto a sandwich due to hand pain and weakness prior to my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) diagnosis.

The good news is that today, the long-term prognosis for people with RA is better than at any prior time in history. The progressive hand deformities, hand weakness, and severe pain that are associated with uncontrolled RA are becoming less common.

However, as an occupational therapist (OT) living with rheumatoid arthritis, I know that stretching and strengthening my hands is important to preserve my hand strength and joint stability.

Additionally, people with arthritis who exercise generally have less pain, more energy, improved sleep, and improved daily function compared to those who don’t.

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, occupational therapy practitioners help people with arthritis live life to its fullest by maximizing their ability to participate in activities and enhancing quality of life.

An OT evaluates your overall physical abilities (including strength and range of motion) in the context of your unique life circumstances and recommends treatments based on your personal goals.

These treatments often include lifestyle factors such as exercise, in addition to personalized adaptive equipment, home modifications, pain and fatigue management techniques, stress management, mental health support, and methods to protect joints during daily routines.

Occupational therapists often recommend home exercise programs, which consist of a simple list of exercises to complete daily or weekly to maintain your strength and range of motion.

A 2013 research review indicates that these programs have been shown to improve muscle strength, joint mobility, and shoulder function and also reduce morning stiffness, number of swollen joints, and pain for people with RA.

The following stretches and strengthening exercises can help reduce the stiffness that’s associated with inactivity in rheumatoid arthritis. They can also help provide stability around joints through strengthening.

Before starting a home exercise program, it’s always a good idea to clear your exercises with a qualified healthcare professional.

If you experience pain while performing any of the following exercises, please stop and seek assistance from a health professional such as an occupational therapist or certified hand therapist (an occupational therapist or physical therapist with additional training and certification in treating disorders of the hand).

Complete 8 to 10 repetitions of these exercises a day, or however many is convenient for you.

Thumb crosses

Since our thumbs are so important for everyday tasks, it’s important to maintain as much range of motion as possible. RA can cause stiffness, particularly at the base of the thumb (the metacarpophalangeal joint), as well as the carpometacarpal (the one closer down to the wrist).

  1. Hold your thumb away from the palm of your hand with your fingers outstretched and your palm facing away from you.
  2. Move your thumb across the palm of your hand and try to touch the base of your pinky finger.
  3. Slowly move your thumb back to its starting position.

Thumb taps

This can help you maintain the range of motion required for precision tasks such as picking up small objects off the ground or gripping a credit card.

  1. Start with your fingers extended, like you’re about to give someone a high-five.
  2. One at a time, bring the tip of each finger to your thumb and back to the outstretched high-five position.

If this is easy for you, try to up the strengthening demands by adding an additional element: Use therapy putty or a similar material to squeeze between your thumb and each finger.

Finger flexors, or ‘jazz hands’

This helps stretch the metacarpophalangeal joints, which tend to be affected by rheumatoid arthritis, as well as the tendons that surround them.

  1. Start with your fingers curled into a fist, with your thumb squeezing against your pointer finger.
  2. Slowly extend your fingers and thumb so they’re straight.

Finger spreads

  1. Start with your fingers extended as much as possible and touching each other with your palm facing away from you.
  2. Slowly move your fingers away from each other like you’re making a starfish shape.

Finger lifts

  1. Place your palms flat on the table.
  2. While keeping all other fingers as flat as you can, lift one finger off the table at a time.

Ball squeezes

  1. Gently squeeze a small, squishy ball, like a stress ball or tennis ball.
  2. Repeat up to 10 times at moderate effort.

Be careful not to squeeze so hard that you feel pain.

While hand exercises may seem like an obvious daily endeavor to manage RA, it’s important to note that some research shows mixed effectiveness of hand exercises on long-term function.

My best advice, in lieu of this data, is to simply pay attention to your own patterns of pain and stiffness and see whether these exercises work for you.

I personally find that gentle hand stretches and strengthening activities can reduce stiffness and help me feel a sense of self-efficacy, or ability to confidently manage my condition. I hope you find them helpful as well!


Cheryl Crow is an occupational therapist who’s lived with rheumatoid arthritis for 18 years. In 2019, Cheryl started Arthritis Life to help others thrive despite arthritis. She facilitates online courses and support groups to help people adjust to their conditions and live full and meaningful lives. Most days you can find Cheryl creating life hack videos, sharing patient stories on the Arthritis Life Podcast, or spreading the word about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).