For many people, hand strength declines with age, especially if arthritis sets in, making it hard to go about daily tasks. A study published in 2017 in Arthritis & Rheumatology estimated that the overall lifetime risk of hand osteoarthritis is close to 40 percent, with twice as many women as men developing it. People who are obese are also more susceptible-possibly because obesity increases chronic low-level inflammation, which contributes to joint damage.
Exercise away hand pain?
There is plenty of evidence that people with hand arthritis, who often experience a decline in grip strength because of painful joints, can benefit from hand exercises. For instance, in a 2013 study in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, women with hand osteoarthritis who did hand exercises three times a week for three months had decreases in pain, along with improvements in grip strength and hand function. The exercises included rolling fingers into a fist, squeezing a rubber ball, and spreading fingers as wide as possible. A 2017 review by the Cochrane Collaboration of seven studies involving 534 people with hand osteoarthritis concluded that hand exercise programs can improve joint stiffness, hand pain, hand function, and quality of life.
Among several possible mechanisms, exercise strengthens the muscles around joints to better support them, increases circulation of synovial fluid (which helps cushion joints), increases oxygen and nutrients circulating through the joint’s membranes, and triggers a process by which cell debris is removed from joints.
Pumping up your hands
Hand exercise programs should focus not just on the muscles that flex the fingers but also on those that extend them. There are all sorts of things you can use to improve your hand strength and flexibility, including small soft balls, resistance bands, and therapy putty. These all come in different colors, reflecting different levels of resistance. Among the exercises you can do with putty:
- Squeeze putty in the palm of your hand, bending your fingers to press the putty as you create a fist.
- Place a ball of putty between the side of your index finger and thumb and press until the two fingers touch. This can also be done with three fingers, adding the middle finger, so all three fingers touch as you squeeze the putty.
- Other exercises include pulling putty using both hands; rolling putty with the flat palm of your hand, while extending each finger back; and pressing a ball of putty between each finger and your thumb, going from index finger to little finger.
In general, hand exercises should be done at least several times a week and include both high-resistance exercises to improve muscle strength and low-resistance exercises done repeatedly to build endurance, as well as flexibility exercises that involve moving your hands and fingers through their full range of motion. This webpage from the National Institute on Aging shows a simple hand-grip exercise using a tennis ball: tinyurl.com/NIAhand. Another source is from Kaiser Permanente: tinyurl.com/handOAexercises. Sand (placed in a deep tray or bucket) is a good medium to use: Submerge your hand, then flex and extend it against the pressure of the sand.
Bottom line: If you have arthritis in your hands, exercise may bring some symptom relief and help with day-to-day activities. Because of differences in individual needs (and injury risks), it’s best to have your physician or a physical therapist evaluate you and determine the best program for you.