November 17, 2023

16 Hand and Wrist Exercises To Help Ease Arthritis Pain

Simple exercises like tendon glides and finger lifts can have a big impact

Person rubbing painful wrists and hands on lap.

Hand arthritis can be extremely painful, limit your ability to move and sap your hand strength. And unlike other unwelcome houseguests, it’s usually there to stay.


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When you start limiting your activities and movement due to arthritis pain, your tendons can shorten over time, leading to the telltale signs of advanced hand arthritis (think: knotted joints and bent, curled fingers).

Why exercise helps arthritis in the hands and wrist

Eventually, everything gets so tight that it makes it that much harder — and more painful — to recover your range of motion. That’s why it’s critical to prevent worsening symptoms now rather than try to restore function later. And exercise is a natural antidote.

“Hand strengthening exercises for arthritis help you protect your range of motion and function so you’re able to grasp objects and perform fine motor tasks like buttoning or zippering,” explains occupational therapist and certified hand therapist Jesse DeFilippo, OTR/L, CHT. “More motion equals more mobility, and that usually leads to less pain and better functioning.”

Hand and wrist exercises for arthritis

When you’re doing exercises for hand arthritis, it’s important to let pain be your guide, DeFilippo says.

“If they hurt, stop doing them. Do everything to your tolerance,” he advises. “The point is not to force anything. It’s to gradually build your tolerance to motion and light strengthening.”

You should also avoid these movements if you’re experiencing an arthritis flare-up, which involves a sudden increase in joint pain and inflammation.

So, how often should you do your hand and wrist exercises? It depends on the exercises themselves. “Stretches and non-resistive movements are OK to do every day,” DeFilippo says, “but weighted and resistance-based exercises should only be done three times a week.”

These 16 movements can get you on the road to arthritis symptom relief.

Warm-up ball

Rolling a ball along your hand is a great way to warm it up before you exercise. “It’s a nice massage and stretch for your muscles and tendons,” says DeFilippo.

To do it:

  1. Grab a tennis ball or another firm ball of a similar size.
  2. Put it on a flat surface (like a table) and place your hand on top of it, with your palm facing down.
  3. Roll the ball back and forth, up your fingers and down your palm.

Therapy putty exercises

Using therapy putty provides a warm-up effect, too. It’s a type of modeling putty that has different levels of pliability and resistance.

“I have patients roll it out to loosen and warm things up, but there are therapy putty exercises that help strengthen arthritic hands, too,” DeFilippo says. “Spending 10 to 15 minutes three times each week working on some of these therapy putty exercises can be beneficial.”


Here are a few (dare we say a handful?) to try:

  • Finger scissors: Squeeze the putty between two of your fingers as if your fingers are cutting it like a pair of scissors.
  • Finger extension: Shape the putty into a long rope. Make a hook shape with one of your fingers, and loop the putty around your fingernail. Hold the two ends of the putty with your other hand against the bottom of your palm so it forms a kind of resistance band as you try to straighten your hooked finger.
  • Finger spread: Form the putty into a donut, then put it around two of your fingers and spread them apart. You can also put the donut around all your fingers and thumb and spread them outward to stretch the putty.
  • Fingertip pinch: Shape the putty into a ball and grip it between your thumb and fingertips.
  • Flat pinch: Put the putty between your thumb and straightened fingers (sort of like your hand is inside a puppet), and pinch.
  • Power grip: Place the putty in the palm of your hand. Make a fist and squeeze the putty.

Tendon glides

Tendon glides are great exercises to maintain range of motion in your fingers. They involve a series of four hand movements.

“These movements isolate each motion that your fingers can do,” DeFilippo explains.

To do tendon glides:

  1. Hold your hand up with your fingers straight like you’re about to high-five someone.
  2. Keeping your fingers straight, bend your fingers down at your knuckles (metacarpophalangeal or MCP joints) so they’re perpendicular to your palm. Return them to their starting position.
  3. Bend your fingers down at their top two joints towards the bottom of your fingers. Return them to their starting position.
  4. Bend your fingers at your MCP joints and the joints in the middle of your fingers (proximal interphalangeal joints or PIP joints), trying to touch your palm. Return them to their starting position.
  5. Make a fist with your thumb out to the side. Return your hand to its starting high-five position.

“Do them as many as 10 times in a sitting, three to five times each day, to help keep everything moving smoothly,” DeFillippo recommends. “Treat it like your meals. Do it first thing in the morning, at midday and then toward the end of the day around dinnertime.”

Wrist flexion

Wrist flexion and other wrist movements can help arthritis in your wrist joint.

“Just the process of actively moving your wrist to the best of its ability leads to an increase in range of motion and tolerance to that activity over time,” DeFilippo says.

To do wrist flexions:

  1. Hold a can or a weighted handle in your hand.
  2. Position your hand palm up while holding the object.
  3. Bend your wrist upward and then slowly lower it back to its starting position. Think of it like a bicep curl for your wrists.
  4. Over time, you can increase the weight of the object.
  5. Do two sets of 15 reps on each wrist.

Wrist extension

Like wrist flexion, wrist extension can help ease arthritis in your wrist. It’s a similar motion, but in the opposite direction.

To do wrist extension:

  1. Sit in a chair next to a flat surface, like a desk or table.
  2. Place your forearm on the surface, with your wrist and hand hanging off the edge (so that you have room to move it).
  3. Palm down, hold a can or a weighted handle in your hand.
  4. Without moving your forearm, bend your wrist upward and then slowly lower it back to its starting position.
  5. Do two sets of 15 reps on each wrist.

Finger blocking and reverse blocking

Finger blocking isolates and moves your finger joints. With the thumb or index finger from your opposite hand, you’re blocking a finger from moving down to your palm as you bend it.

To do finger blocking:

  1. Place your left thumb or index finger against your right index finger’s proximal interphalangeal joint (joint in the middle of your finger).
  2. Bend your right finger down along that joint as far as you can.
  3. Do 10 reps on each finger.

Reverse blocking is similar, except you bend your fingers at your MCP joints (knuckle joints). You can do four fingers at the same time by using the entire length of your opposite finger to block them.

Finger lift

Finger lifts are a great way to increase the range of motion in your fingers and prevent pain.

To do finger lifts:

  1. Lay your palm flat on a table.
  2. Lift one finger, leaving the rest flat on the table.
  3. Do 10 reps.
  4. Repeat with your remaining fingers.

Hand exercises for thumb arthritis

Starting a thumb exercise regimen is more complicated.

“I don’t recommend that people start one unless they see a therapist who can give them an outline of specific exercises to do,” says DeFilippo. “Splinting is often needed for thumb arthritis to protect the joint while you use your hand. And it’s crucial to avoid pinching activities and movements that will hyperextend your thumb and put more stress on the joint.”

Because thumb arthritis affects your carpometacarpal (CMC) joint at the base of your thumb, the most effective exercises strengthen the muscles supporting it. Try these three exercises to help thumb arthritis symptoms:

  • Isometric “C” exercise: Make a C-shape with your hand. Touch your fingertips to your thumb to turn the C into an O.
  • First dorsal interossei strengthening isolated abduction: Put a rubber band around your four fingers. Using the rubber band as resistance, separate your index finger from your other three fingers.
  • Thumb extension: Hold your hand up like you are showing the number five. Move your thumb toward your palm like you’re showing the number four and back again. “Make sure tip your thumb and the joint below are flexed during the whole movement,” DeFilippo says. “This ensures that there isn’t excessive strain on your CMC joint.”

When to see your healthcare provider about hand arthritis

DeFilippo recommends seeing a physical or occupational therapist if the pain gets in the way of any of your daily activities.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, if your pain is at a 2 or 3, that’s probably manageable,” he says. “But if you’re at a 6 to 8 every day, get help right away — especially if the pain has increased over time or your personal pain management techniques aren’t working.”

Remember that, when it comes to hand exercises for arthritis, consistency is key.

“In my experience, it takes about three to four weeks for patients who consistently do their exercises at home and in combination with therapy appointments to experience noticeable relief,” DeFilippo says. “Often, they feel like they’re able to increase their range of motion, and if they were sore, it reduces their pain.”

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