The joints in the fingers, thumbs, and wrists can become stiff and swollen from certain types of autoimmune arthritis, especially rheumatoid arthritis. Everyday tasks, such as opening car doors and brushing teeth, can become challenging and painful. Hand exercises can help stretch and strengthen muscles and tendons, help relieve symptoms, and improve hand function.

Read more about Hand Pain and Rheumatoid Arthritis

The best hand exercise program is one that has been customized for a person’s unique anatomy and circumstances. A qualified health care practitioner, such as an occupational therapist or physical therapist who specializes in the hand, can tailor a program to an individual’s needs.

While a personalized hand exercise program is ideal, the 4 hand exercises described below are okay for most people who have rheumatoid arthritis. The goal of these exercises is to:

  • Strengthen muscles and tendons in the hand and forearms
  • Improving range of motion in the fingers and thumbs
  • Improve hand function, including the ability to grip, pinch, and hold objects

If hand pain is present, it is a good idea to clear these exercises with a qualified health care practitioner. During each exercise, keep the wrist in a relaxed, neutral (straight) position. Stop any exercise if it triggers sharp or severe pain.

In This Article:

Thumb Crosses

Rheumatoid arthritis can make the joint at the base of the thumb (the carpometacarpal joint) feel stiff, achy, and weak. Since the thumbs are used during many daily activities, it is important to maintain these joints’ range of motion and muscle strength.

Doing this exercise regularly may help alleviate stiffness and improve strength:

  • Extend your fingers and thumb straight up, like you are about to give a high-5
  • Bring your thumb across the palm of your, hand toward the base of your pinky

Hold for a few seconds and then relax. Repeat 8 to 12 times, then switch hands. Do 1 to 3 sets a day.

Knuckle Bends

These exercises are designed to ease stiffness in the knuckles and strengthen the forearm muscles that control the fingers.

  • Start with fingers extended in the high-5 position
  • Make a claw by bending your 4 fingers at their top two knuckles (called the proximal interphalangeal joints and the distal interphalangeal joints)
  • Try to bend the knuckles so much that the tips of the fingers curl around and touch the palm. Due to stiffness or deformity, it might not be possible to reach all the way to the palm, in which case simply proceed as far as is possible and comfortable for you.
  • Keep the thumb extended throughout this exercise

When doing this exercise, try to resist the urge to bend the large knuckles (called the metacarpophalangeal joints) where the fingers meet the palm. Repeat the exercise 8 to 12 times, then switch hands. Do 1 to 3 sets a day.


Fist Stretches

Stiff, swollen hand joints can make it difficult to make a fist. Making a fist requires a lot of the same muscles and tendons that are used for gripping. Regularly performing this fist stretch may help improve grip strength.

  • Make a fist
  • Extend your fingers and thumb, so they are straight and fanned out

It may be challenging to make a tight fist or fully straightening the fingers and thumb. Do your best. Repeat 8 to 12 times, then switch hands. Do 1 to 3 sets a day.

Thumb to Fingertip Touches

This exercise can increase dexterity and strength in the thumb and finger joints. Regularly performing this exercise may help improve the ability to pinch small objects, such as credit cards, papers, and eating utensils.

  • Start with the thumb and fingers extended in the high 5 position.
  • Touch the tip of your thumb with the tip of your index finger, similar to an “okay” sign.
  • Return the index finger to the starting position, and repeat with the other 3 fingers, touching the tip of the thumb to the tips of the middle, ring, and pinky fingers.

When touching a thumb to fingertip, try to keep the other 3 fingers straight up. Repeat this series 8 to 12 times, then switch hands.


When done regularly, these hand exercises will probably get easier over time. Once hand strength improves, regular exercises may still be necessary to maintain functional gains.

Read more about Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis in Hands

A licensed health care practitioner with specialized knowledge about rheumatoid arthritis in the hands can suggest additional exercises as well as other treatments to help alleviate rheumatoid arthritis symptoms in the hands.

Cheryl Crow is a licensed occupational therapist. A rheumatoid arthritis patient herself, Ms. Crow combines her personal experiences and professional expertise to help others navigate the everyday challenges associated with chronic joint pain.