If you are experiencing pain in your hands while doing simple tasks like holding a cup or turning a doorknob, know you are not alone.
Hand and wrist pain plagues people of all ages but becomes much more prevalent as we age. Getting older means our hands can become weaker and less flexible, causing discomfort and difficulty in everyday activities.
So what can you do to get your hands to move better and less painfully?
Fortunately, some simple exercises and stretches can help alleviate pain and improve hand and wrist function. These exercises can improve hand strength, flexibility and range of motion, agility, and coordination, decreasing the risk of hand injuries.
They can also relieve pain from common hand conditions like arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome. I’ll walk you through some primary hand and wrist exercises and stretches that I often prescribe to my patients that you can easily do at home to manage your symptoms.
Common Hand Conditions in Older Adults
It’s common to develop various hand conditions that can cause discomfort and limit our ability to perform daily activities as we age.
Conditions I often see in my physical therapy clinic range from arthritis to trigger finger to carpal tunnel syndrome. While these conditions can be frustrating, there are ways to manage and even improve them with the help of a physical therapist.
Arthritis causes joint inflammation, leading to pain, stiffness, and limited mobility. By improving grip strength, flexibility, and range of motion, hand exercises can help muscles support the joints, alleviate arthritis symptoms, and improve function.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome develops due to the median nerve compression in the wrist carpal tunnel, causing numbness, tingling, and weakness in the hand.
Targeted exercises and “nerve glides” can reduce pressure on the median nerve to improve sensation and strength.
Dupuytren’s contracture is a hand condition that affects the connective tissues in the palm, thickening and tightening the fascia, which results in the fingers curling towards the palm.
Stretching for increased flexibility and range of motion and wearing a splint or brace may reduce the severity of Dupuytren’s contracture.
Stenosing tenosynovitis, or “trigger finger,” is caused by inflammation or thickening of the sheath surrounding the finger’s tendon.
It causes one or more fingers to become continuously bent, often resulting in a snapping or popping sensation when the finger is straightened. The best thing you can do for this is gentle stretching to improve the range of motion in the joints of the finger and hand.
Tendinitis is when the tendons in the hand become inflamed or irritated, causing pain and discomfort. To resolve these symptoms, it is important to avoid activities that exacerbate the condition and to rest the hand as much as possible.
Once the inflammation reduces, light exercises that focus on gentle stretching and strengthening can also be helpful.
Benefits of Hand Exercises & Stretches for Seniors
There are numerous benefits to giving some care and attention to your hands.
Targeted stretching and strengthing exercises to help with range of motion and dexterity can make an enormous difference in how your hands work and feel.
The Benefits of Stretching
Stretching your hands and wrists can help improve flexibility, range of motion, and blood circulation.
You can improve tissue flexibility in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments by performing active and passive range-of-motion stretching exercises. In addition to the structures around the joints, you can also work to increase the mobility of the tissues surrounding the joint (called joint capsules).
The Benefits of Strengthening
Hand exercises can also help improve hand strength, making it easier to grip and hold objects. These exercises relieve pain, prevent injuries, and improve function.
Over thirty muscles in the hand work together to move. Weakness or pain in any of these muscles may impact your function. These small muscles require equally small exercises for adequate and appropriate strengthening.
A combination of resistance training and endurance exercises for these muscles is the recipe for success.
You can also increase your agility and coordination with hand and finger exercises. These movement characteristics are essential for performing tasks that require fine motor skills. Examples of fine motor movements include picking up your medications, buttoning up a shirt, and picking out coins from your wallet.
Injury Prevention Benefits
Increasing your hand strength and flexibility reduces your risk for injuries like sprains and strains. The stronger and more flexible the muscles are in your hand and wrist, the better they can support your underlying bones, joints, and soft tissues.
Think about your muscles like a rubber band. A strong and flexible rubber band can stretch without breaking, but weak and inflexible ones will snap easily. Your muscles and joints work together to support your body’sbody’s movements. When your muscles are strong and flexible, they can better absorb the impact of physical activity, reducing the strain on your joints and decreasing your risk of injury.
Before you try these exercises to help with hand or wrist pain, it is best to do a simple warmup.
Simply make a gentle fist and open your hand 10-15 times, then gently bend and extend each finger 5-10 times to get some movement into the tissues. As long you don’t feel any pain, continue with the following exercises:
Finger Extension Stretch
This exercise stretches the tissues in the underside of your palm wrist while strengthening the muscles that lift the fingers.
- Place your hand flat with your palm on a table, then slowly lift each finger off the table one at a time, holding each for a few seconds before lowering it back down.
- You can assist the stretch using your other hand on each finger, but be gentle. Keep all other fingers and your palm flat on the table when lifting an individual finger.
- Repeat on each finger 10-15 times, then switch hands.
Wrist Flexion Stretch
This exercise stretches the finger and wrist extensors—the same muscles that were used to lift the fingers in the previous exercise:
- Hold your arm out in front of you with your palm facing down, then use your other hand to pull your fingers gently and palm towards your wrist until you feel a stretch on the back of your hand and wrist.
- Keep your arm extended (elbow straight) to stretch your forearm muscles.
- Hold this for 15-30 seconds and repeat up to 10 times.
Thumb Extension Stretch
Our thumb is one of the most important joints in our bodies, and it is primarily used to grip or squeeze. This exercise gives our hard-working thumb a much-needed stretch:
- Hold your hand out in front of you with your palm facing down. You can rest your hand on a table for extra support.
- Use your other hand to gently pull your thumb along the table’stable’s surface towards your wrist until you feel a stretch.
- Hold for 10-15 seconds and repeat up to 10 times.
Hand Strength Exercises
Over time, grip strength can begin to weaken, particularly if you have arthritis or other conditions in your hands. This can lead to trouble holding objects or dropping things. This simple exercise can help to keep your grip strong:
- Keeping your forearm supported on a table, hold a small, squishy ball, putty, or rolled-up towel lightly in your palm.
- Squeeze for 10-15 seconds, then release and repeat for up to 20-25 repetitions.
The great thing about this exercise is how much you can do with it. You can vary the position of your hand (palm up, palm down, palm to the side), the arm support (forearm supported on a table or unsupported), and the firmness of the object (foam ball to lacrosse ball) to change the difficulty of the exercise.
You can also purchase a grip strengthener—a device widely available in various sizes and resistance levels online.
Being able to spread your fingers wide is as essential as the ability to make a fist. This exercise can help to improve this range of motion.
- Place your hand palm down on a flat surface, then slowly spread your fingers as far apart as possible.
- Hold for a few seconds, then bring the fingers together to touch.
- Repeat for several repetitions. To increase the resistance, you can add a rubber band around the fingers you are moving.
This exercise is more focused on hand coordination and dexterity to keep your hands and fingers healthy:
- Touch the tip of each finger to the tip of your thumb, starting with your index finger and moving to your pinky finger.
- Then move from your pinky finger back through each finger to the index finger again. This is one of my favorite exercises to build coordination with my patients.
- For an extra challenge, you can vary the speed at which you perform the task, close your eyes or perform multiple touches on each finger.
Always listen to your body and stop any exercises that cause pain or intense discomfort.
- Hand and wrist pain is common with aging, reducing strength and flexibility.
- Simple exercises and stretches can alleviate pain and improve function, focusing on strength, flexibility, and coordination.
- Common conditions like arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and tendinitis can be managed with targeted exercises.
- Stretching and strengthening exercises enhance flexibility, range of motion, and grip strength, reducing injury risks.
- Individual progress varies, and professional consultation is recommended for tailored exercises and monitoring.
- Lifestyle adjustments, ergonomic practices, and a balanced diet can prevent or mitigate hand conditions.
- Medications or treatments may be necessary for severe conditions under medical guidance.
How quickly can one expect improvements from hand stretches?
Improvement time varies with the individual and condition severity. Some notice changes within weeks, while others need months. Monitoring progress and consulting with a professional is crucial.
What lifestyle habits contribute to hand conditions?
Repetitive motions, use of vibrating tools, and injuries can lead to conditions. Regular breaks, proper ergonomics, and protective gear are preventive measures.
Are there dietary impacts on hand conditions?
Anti-inflammatory foods can reduce symptoms, while excessive salt, sugars, and processed foods might increase inflammation. Hydration also benefits joint health.
How often should one see a physical therapist for hand conditions?
Initial weekly or bi-weekly visits might decrease as conditions improve. Periodic check-ins every few months may be advisable for chronic cases.
What medications complement these exercises for symptom management?
Over-the-counter pain relievers can be used short-term. For severe conditions, stronger medications or corticosteroid injections might be prescribed. Always use under a doctor’s guidance.
- Williams, M. A., Srikesavan, C., Heine, P. J., Bruce, J., Brosseau, L., Hoxey-Thomas, N., & Lamb, S. E. (2018). Exercise for rheumatoid arthritis of the hand. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 7(7), CD003832. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003832.pub3 1
- Ünver, S., & Akyolcu, N. (2018). The Effect of Hand Exercise on Reducing the Symptoms in Hemodialysis Patients with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Asian journal of neurosurgery, 13(1), 31–36. https://doi.org/10.4103/ajns.AJNS_343_16
- Labott, B. K., Bucht, H., Morat, M., Morat, T., & Donath, L. (2019). Effects of Exercise Training on Handgrip Strength in Older Adults: A Meta-Analytical Review. doi: 10.1159/000501203 2
- Menta, R., Randhawa, K., Côté, P., Wong, J., Yu, H., Sutton, D., Varatharajan, S., Southerst, D., D’Angelo, K., Cox, J., Brown, C., Dion, S., Mior, S., Stupar, M., Shearer, H., Lindsay, G., Jacobs, C., Taylor-Vaisey, A. (2015). The Effectiveness of Exercise for the Management of Musculoskeletal Disorders and Injuries of the Elbow, Forearm, Wrist, and Hand: A Systematic Review by the Ontario Protocol for Traffic Injury Management (OPTIMa) Collaboration. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, 38(7), 507-520. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmpt.2015.06.002