Hand Exercises Aid Rheumatoid Arthritis

Muscle-strengthening exercises may ease pain and help individuals with RA improve their quality of life

WebMD The Magazine—October 15, 2007

For 25 years, New Yorker Carol Solomon, 69, ran a knitting store. In 2006, a few years into retirement, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in both hands. “I have movement in my thumb and in my pointer finger, but my other three fingers are pretty stiff,” she says. Solomon didn’t want to give up the knitting and sewing she loves, so she sought help from her doctor and physical therapists at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery.

There’s a saying about exercise and RA: Use it, but don’t abuse it. “Studies have shown that strengthening the muscles around the joints leads to overall improved function and better quality of life,” says Heather Williams, DPT, a physical therapist in Hospital for Special Surgery’s Joint Mobility Center. “Patients can be afraid to exercise those joints because of pain, but they really benefit from strengthening exercises.”

RA is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own tissues. It’s a chronic disease, but when diagnosed and treated early with a combination of medication and physical therapy, joint damage can be limited.

When it affects the hands or wrists, like Solomon’s, some helpful exercises include squeezing small exercise balls or putting the hand out flat, palm up, and bending each finger one by one into the palm. Take it slowly, advises the physical therapist. She says Solomon should try three sets of five repetitions of each exercise instead of 10 or 12 reps -- and then work up to more as she builds her strength.

People with RA go through phases called “flare-ups,” with extremely swollen and painful joints, and then “subacute” phases when the disease is less active. Modifying activity depending on what phase you’re in is important, says Theodore Fields, MD, clinical director of the Gosden Robinson Inflammatory Arthritis Center at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery. “When you have a significant flare-up, the joints need more rest."

Whatever kind of exercise you do, be sure to discuss your exercise plan with a physical therapist who understands RA. “Have your physical therapist work out a home-exercise program that fits your needs and respects the joints you have trouble with,” says Fields.

Read the full story at WebMD.com.

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