The internet is overloaded with advice and exercise tips that are good for your hands, and information overload can be overwhelming. Therefore, we have put together a helpful list of tips to manage arthritis pain in your hands, exercises that will help and other useful information.

Arthritis in the hands presents with painful joints, swelling, difficulty with movement, and limited function, like being unable to grip properly. Clinical interventions aim to reduce pain, control swelling, improve range of motion and improve the function of the hand, like gripping.

Gail Donaldson

Gail Donaldson

Physiotherapist, Wellhand

Early in March, Gail Donaldson, a physiotherapist from Wellhand, did a talk in Wellington and advised people with arthritis in their hands about how they can manage pain and do useful exercises. Much of the information in this article is from the presentation. The video link is at the end of this article.


As with all exercise advice for people with arthritis – always work within your comfort level and do not force any movements. No one can tell you how often or how long you should do any exercise.

Your arthritis pain and discomfort is unique to you, and you will need to find your balance. Remember, a key thing to help you find your balance is: too much exercise causes pain, too little exercise cause stiffness. Trial different exercises for different periods and find your balance.

Pain relief

Cold treatment – when something is acutely inflamed, an immediate intervention is to apply cold or ice to it. The bones in the hand are close to the skin so you should make sure there is a fabric material (cotton or similar) barrier between the ice and the skin.

Compression – there is a limit in applying compression. It needs to be a comfortable level of compression. Wrapping a joint too tightly will cause more pain, compression should support the joint and feel like the pain is easing. You can use compression gloves, thermal gloves, and even bandaging to compress a painful joint.

Gentle exercise and stretching – the body removes swelling passively, not actively. Our lymphatic system relies on muscle contraction and relaxation to move the fluids that cause swelling in our joints. There are various exercises you can do for your hands.

Rest Splints – use as prescribed or recommended by your health care professional

Warmth and Massage can also be useful to improve circulation and reduce aching – 

  • Try doing the hand exercises with your hands in warm water
  • Use any rub-on or cream you have to hand to massage your hands gently
  • Use a wheat bag or hot water bottle for extra warmth

Hand exercises

Tendon gliding or “tai chi for fingers”

Start with your fingers together and your hand pointing up. Bend the tips of your fingers towards the floor, then carry on to make a fist, then let the tips of your fingers and your thumb relax into a straight position. Keep the motions smooth and do them without straining. This exercise gives the joints in your hands a full range of motion exercise. Do this about ten times per day.

Finger extension

Place your palm flat on a table and then raise each finger one by one. Repeat ten times if comfortable.

Thumb opposition

Make the letter ‘O’ by touch your thumb to each fingertip, one at a time. Make the circle as round as you can. Repeat ten times if comfortable.


  • Protect joints whenever possible during loading, with splints or aids
  • Rest joints regularly, at night is easiest
  • Joints need the full range of motion exercises every day
  • Strengthen joint stabiliser muscles by doing the gentle exercises

Think about what load and stress goes through your hands when doing your favourite activities and then find ways to minimise force and load so that you can get on with life.

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