Stronger Hands: Keeping Your Small Joints Stable
Last updated: September 2022
Keeping my strength up is one of the biggest uphill battles of my life. This is also the case when it comes to my hands because they have endured more damage than many of my other joints, so I really have to be careful not to cause more damage as I try to gain strength. I think a lot of people are in the same boat with this predicament, so I thought I’d share a couple of ideas that have helped me along the way.
RA impacts our hands and fingers
The first thing to think about when you start any new exercise is to be mindful of how your joints respond. This is especially important with small joints like the fingers. Rheumatoid arthritis weakens the finger joints in a way that encourage something called “ulnar drift,” which basically means your fingers want to fall toward the pinky side of your hand instead of moving straight up and down. Over time, this tendency can become a fixed position which will make you even weaker and less functional.
Also, most of what we do every day with our hands involves gripping. This can make that lateral movement stronger and the movement of extending fingers weaker. Whenever I do exercises to strengthen my fingers and hand joints, I focus on my weaker muscles.
Tips before trying these exercises
Right now, rheumatoid arthritis has damaged my joints so much that both of my wrists are fused. I can’t fully extend or bring my fingers up. Each one of us will have our own challenges, but if you remember these 2 things, I think you will find a way to strengthen your hands.
- You don’t need to exercise for long periods of time. Shorter sessions are better than focusing on everything at once. Try tapping your fingers on a table and see how quickly you get tired- you will see what I mean!
- If something increases your pain, back off! It can be easy to overdo it, so less is more.
Using therapy putty to increase hand strength
My favorite way to exercise my hands is to use therapy putty. It is just like silly putty except it comes in different colors that correspond with how hard the putty is, ranging from extra-soft to extra-firm.
You can buy therapy putty online and I would err on the side of softer putty for fingers. If the putty gets too soft as you work with it, you can put it in the refrigerator and it will harden. Never leave putty out or especially on fabric because it will mold to everything and it’s like gum to get off!
Some of my favorite exercises
Now, time to exercise!
Improve finger strength
Roll the putty out like a snake and focus on keeping your fingers straight. Then make a donut shape with the putty, put your hand inside, and stretch your fingers out. Make a ball by moving around in one hand and then push your thumb down on top of the putty. Roll the putty out again, and this time put it vertically on your surface and squeeze between your thumb and index finger, then your index and middle, until you get to your pinky. This will strengthen the muscles that are used less and help prevent the issues I talked about before.
If you want to get your wrist stronger, hold the putty with both hands, one on top of the other, and move your top wrist up, stretching the putty. Then you can push it down with your wrist. You can also squeeze the putty, but again, you already have to squeeze a lot during your daily activities so those muscles will be much stronger than the others and I wouldn’t emphasize doing that.
If you don’t have therapy putty...
A couple other ideas to try- if you have extra newspaper or a flyer you don’t want, try crumbling it into a ball with one hand- this works the small finger muscles without straining them. Or, take a hand towel and put it on your counter, placed flat and on the long side. Then, with one hand, use your fingers to gather it towards you.
These may seem like simple things, but they work to help keep your joints stronger, more stable, and more functional over time. It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but over time, even small drops will fill a bucket up!
Did you know rheumatologist Dr. Donica Baker is answering community questions?
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