DEAR DOCTOR K: I’m bothered by pain and stiffness in my hands. It’s nothing significant, but enough to interfere with some tasks. Are there any exercises that might help?
DEAR READER: You never realize how many different and essential things you do with your hands until something happens to them. Pain, stiffness or swollen joints can transform even a simple task into a painful ordeal. And millions of people have problems using their hands.
Fortunately, the right exercises may help. Start by asking your doctor if you should work with a hand therapist – an occupational or physical therapist who has specialized education and training in hand rehabilitation.
The first thing the therapist will do is evaluate your hand’s range of motion and strength, as well as any pain, swelling or physical limitations. Based on these observations, he or she will suggest specific exercises to suit your needs.
When a joint hurts, you use it less – and thereby experience less pain. So far, so good. But when you don’t use a joint, it tends to stiffen further. Sometimes it gets “frozen” and can no longer do everything it once did.
Exercises can help increase the range of motion of a joint such as a thumb. The exercises involve gentle stretching (a little pain, but worth the gain).
The exercises also involve strengthening the muscles that move the joint. Put a finger on the skin below the base of your thumb. Now with the tip of the thumb touch the bottom of your little finger again, and feel what’s happening under the skin. You can feel the muscle that moves your thumb get thick and tense. That’s because it’s working.
But when you avoid using your thumb and fingers, the muscles that move them get weak. To regain the full use of your hand, you may need exercises to strengthen muscles that have weakened from disuse.
If you do repetitive tasks, such as typing or gripping gardening tools, your muscles may shorten and become tight and painful. Stretching exercises help lengthen your muscles and tendons.