If you have arthritis in your hands, you know how difficult it can be to pick things up and hold onto them.

Hand arthritis can make everyday activities like opening a jar, holding a pen, and turning a key in a door difficult and painful. Assistive devices and specially designed products help make some of these tasks easier and, according to Dr. Nathan Wei, director of the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Maryland, you should use them. But if you want to increase mobility and flexibility, decrease stiffness, improve your grip, and strengthen the muscles in your fingers and wrists, hand exercises are the way to go.

What the research says about targeted exercises for arthritis

A 1997 British study compared the hand and grip strength of women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) to women who did not have arthritis. The researchers found that while the dominant hand is much stronger than the non-dominant in the general population, the opposite is true in women with RA. Those with arthritis were significantly weaker on their dominant side.

While it is important to exercise both sides when you suffer from hand arthritis, since the dominant side is the side you most often, and most effectively for many tasks, it also makes sense to focus even more closely on building up strength in your dominant hand.

Several studies have shown that regular exercise helps improve both hand function and strength in people with arthritis, especially rheumatoid arthritis. One study published in a 2008 issue of the Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy, found that an intensive exercise program is well tolerated for patients with RA of the hand and gets better results than more traditional, conservative programs.

Before you do any exercises, however, speak with your doctor or physical therapist to find out the safest and most effective ones for your specific condition. Exercises that improve the symptoms of one type of arthritis in one particular joint may not be effective for other types. For instance, if you have thumb arthritis, you may need to take a more conservative approach than if you have arthritis in your other fingers.

Here are two simple hand exercises to try. 

The Daily Squeeze

Hold a tennis ball or "stress" ball in the palm of your hand. Squeeze slowly, but squeeze as hard as you can. Hold the squeeze for at least 3 seconds then slowly let go. Rest and repeat several times with each hand. This is an easy exercise to do while you are relaxing in front of the television, listening to music, or reading.

Make an "O"

Hold your hand up straight with your fingers close together. Starting with your index finger, tough the tip of each finger to the trip of your thumb, forming an "O," while leaving your remaining fingers extended. Repeat several times with each hand.

Nathan Wei, MD, reviewed this article.



Brorsson, S. et al. "A Six-Week Hand Exercise Programme Improves Strength and Hand Function in Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis." J Rehabilitation Medicine 2009;41:338-342. Web. Dec 2012

Fraser, A. et al. "Predicting 'Normal' Grip Strength for Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients." Rheumatology (Oxford). 1999 Jun;38(6):521-8. Web. Dec 2012

Mayo Clinic: Slide Show: Hand Exercises for People with Arthritis

Ronningen, A. and Kjeken, I. "Effect of an Intensive Hand Exercise Programme in Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis."  Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy 2008 Sep; 15(3):173-83. Web. Dec 2012