Helping Hands: Tips For Stiff Fingers

Last updated: January 2023

Hand pain and stiffness aren’t strangers to most of us living with rheumatoid arthritis. They can be one of the most vexing things to live with since we all use our hands so much during the day. Typing this sentence requires finger strength; every time I type, I’m reminded of just how weak my fingers have become.

Nerve damage in my hands

Nerve damage can cause weakness and lack of sensation, and along with joint changes and swelling, our hands take quite the beating and I try to remind myself of that every time I drop something or can’t hold a full cup without 2 hands and start to get frustrated. My friend, Daniel Malito, has also written about the frustration that comes with hand RA- reading that article helped me to chuckle a bit about my predicament and gave me a new private joke, so I highly recommend it!

How I improve hand pain, stiffness and weakness

Instead of talking about the uphill battle we all face regarding our hand function, I want to talk a bit about what to do about it. What options do we have to combat the pain/stiffness/weakness? Luckily, I have a few tips up my sleeve that may help.

Heat may help

Waking up and running warm water over my hands is something I often do. The heat increases circulation in the area, which helps loosen muscles and decrease pain. Another great tool for deep heat therapy is a paraffin wax bath. You can buy them online, and they are basically as described- a tub that heats paraffin wax which you dip your hand into a few times and then cover with a plastic bag to trap the heat. If you have never experienced this, you are in for a treat- it relaxes your muscles so deeply! You can cover the bag with a warm cloth or towel to seal in the heat and enjoy.

Cold can also be beneficial

Cold packs can be useful too if you have any inflamed joints- you can tell by looking and touching and seeing if they are red, warm to the touch, and swollen. Cold does the opposite- it decreases blood flow, and that can decrease swelling and temporarily block nerves that cause pain in the area. If you do wake up inflamed, it is important to go easy with the next steps and back off the minute your pain increases.

Gentle movement

Once you have used heat or cold, then you can try a bit of gentle movement. The key is to move your joints as comfortably as possible within the “normal” range that they have to move. It’s okay if you don’t have full movement, but you want to move each joint without increasing pain about ten times. Remember NOT to push movement- this isn’t the time to be a hero, and if you push too much, you can make things worse, not better.

Exercises that have worked for me

Here are some ideas: Instead of just trying to make a fist, you can put your hand on a table and “walk” your fingers toward your thumb one at a time. You can keep your finger joints straight and move up and down at the knuckle joints to make a “shelf” with your fingers. Then you can make a “claw” by keeping the knuckle joints straight and bending your fingers at the top two joints. Finally, you can make circles with your thumb and then move them toward the base of each finger and back. At the wrist, move in every direction- up and down, back and forth like you are waving, and circles.

You will want to back off if this movement increases your pain. I always recommend asking your doctor for a referral to occupational therapy for an evaluation and a home exercise program that fits your individual needs best. Finally, if all goes well, you can introduce some strengthening exercises.

Stay tuned for my next article, discussing how to keep your hands strong and stable!

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