6 Hand Exercises to Ease Arthritis Pain

By Amy Marturana Winderl |

Reduce stiffness and maintain function with these simple but powerful stretches.

Closeup of female hands holding toothbrushThink about your typical morning routine: Wake up, brush your teeth, get dressed, and maybe enjoy a cup of coffee while scrolling the day’s top headlines. Nothing that requires much effort, right? But if you’re living with osteoarthritis (OA) in your hands, you know that’s not always true. 

Also known as wear-and-tear arthritis, OA happens when cartilage — the smooth, elastic tissue that cushions the ends of bones in a joint — breaks down. Without that cushion, bones begin to rub together, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness that can make everyday tasks difficult, says Alfonso Bello, M.D., rheumatologist and director of rheumatologic research at Illinois Bone & Joint Institute.  

When the affected joints are in your hands, that means buttoning up your shirt, tying your shoes, or even holding a toothbrush can feel nearly impossible — yet these aren’t exactly activities you can easily avoid. That’s why it’s so important to keep your hands mobile and do what you can to reduce stiffness and maintain function, Dr. Bello says.  

So what exactly can you do? Adding a few targeted hand exercises to your daily routine is a great place to start. Below are six simple but powerful movements from occupational therapist and certified hand therapist Marie Pace, facility director for the UPMC Centers for Rehab Services Hand Therapy Clinic in Pittsburgh.  

How to Use These Hand Exercises 

Osteoarthritis most commonly affects three parts of the hand:  

  • The base of the thumb, where the thumb meets the wrist 
  • The middle joint of a finger (the proximal joint) 
  • The joint closest to the fingertip (the distal joint) 

With that in mind, Pace shared three exercises that target the fingers and three that target the thumbs. Choose the ones that best pertain to you, and aim to do them twice a day — ideally every day. 

Why so often? Having arthritis typically means using your hands less, which sets off a domino effect of muscle loss that leads to more loss of function, Dr. Bello says. If you don’t want that to happen, you have to be intentional about maintaining strength and motor skills in your hands.  

That said, if you ever feel a sharp pain that comes on suddenly, stop immediately and rest. The best thing you can do for acute pain is reduce strain on the joint, Pace says. That might mean wearing a splint or brace to protect the painful joint during daily activities until the pain calms down, at which point you can resume doing hand exercises.  

Hand Exercise #1: Finger Extension 

Do 10 reps, twice per day  

How to do it: Sit in a chair with your forearm resting on a table, palm down. Relax the hand you’re stretching and use your other hand to straighten your fingers at all three joints, allowing your fingers to raise up off the table. Hold the stretch for a few seconds, then relax and repeat. Move slowly and keep your wrist straight during the exercise.  

Hand Exercise #2: Finger Composite Flexion Stretch 

Do 5 reps, twice per day  

How to do it: Sit with your hands resting on a table in front of you, with the hand you’re stretching palm up. 

Use the fingers of your other hand to bend all of the joints of your affected finger (tip, middle, and bottom) so that it curls in toward your palm. Hold for five seconds, then slowly uncurl your finger and repeat. Do five reps on each affected finger. Keep the rest of your arm relaxed throughout the movement.  

Hand Exercise #3: Single-Digit Intrinsic Stretch 

Do 5 reps, twice per day 

How to do it: Sit or stand with one affected finger curled, holding the bottom and top sections of your finger with your other hand. 

Gently press on the top section of your finger with the other hand while continuing to hold the back of your finger, until you feel a stretch. Hold for five seconds, then release. Repeat on each finger (one finger = one rep).  

If you start to feel pain, back out of the stretch a bit until it goes away.  

Hand Exercise #4: Thumb Circumduction 

Do 10 reps, twice per day 

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How to do it: Sit with your arm resting on a table and your thumb straight. Begin to move your thumb in a circular motion forward or backward, bending at the base joint. Continue for 10 circles, keeping the rest of your arm relaxed the entire time.  

Hand Exercise #5: Thumb Composite Flexion 

Do 10 reps, twice per day 

How to do it: Sit with your arm resting on a table, palm up and thumb straight. Bend your thumb toward the opposite corner of your hand. Return to the starting position and repeat.  

Make sure to bend all of the joints of your thumb, aiming to touch as low as possible on the outer edge of your hand. Keep the rest of your arm relaxed throughout.  

Hand Exercise #6: Thumb Abduction on Table 

Do 10 reps, twice per day 

How to do it: Sit in a chair with your hand resting flat on a table. Slowly drag your thumb out and down, moving it away from your hand, then bring it back and repeat. Make sure to move only the thumb.  

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