Keep your hands healthy this fall with exercise and stretch breaks
By Jeff Humphrey, PT, MPT, CHT, CEAS
Fall can give your hands a workout that brings stiffness and pain from outdoor sports to preparing your gardens, car and house for approaching winter months.
That aching is often called tendonitis and usually caused by excessive use or unconditioned use of the tendons in your wrists and fingers. Repetitive or prolonged activities such as carpentry, painting, gardening, sewing and knitting can all be triggers. Wrist tendonitis may also occur from other activities involving forceful or repetitive gripping of the hand commonly done during fall house and car cleaning. Using vibratory equipment such as a lawnmower or power tools can also irritate wrist and hand tendons.
The symptoms associated with tendonitis usually begin with an ache or stiffness in the wrist and hand following an activity. Typically, the achiness is felt at night or the following morning. As the condition progresses, pain may be felt with every day activities involving the wrist and fingers such as opening containers, shaking hands, or typing. The pain and stiffness often decrease once the muscles in the hand and wrists have been ‘warmed up’ from an activity or massage, but those symptoms usually increase when waking up the next morning. Some patients have the feeling of numbness and weakness in their fingers and hands making fine movements of the hand, gripping and holding objects difficult.
The best way to avoid tendonitis is not overdoing any activities that use a lot of wrist motion – particularly if you have not been regularly exercising during the winter. Be careful about suddenly increasing activities that may stress your tendons.
Regular exercise is essential to maintaining good hand health and overall wellness. Many studies have also shown exercise can reduce pain and improve function in people who have arthritis, another common hand issue particularly for seniors. After starting a regular exercise program, many people notice their hand and wrist pains decrease while their sleep and general health improves.
Check with your physician to find out if you are ready for a regular work-out program and start slowly to build your strength and conditioning. Exercises help to prevent tendonitis and arthritis takes three forms: stretching, strengthening, and conditioning.
- Stretching involves moving joints and muscle groups through and slightly beyond their normal range of motion. These exercises include gentle stretching and movements that take joints through their full span. Doing these exercises regularly can help maintain and improve the flexibility in muscles and joints. If stretching is uncomfortable, try to at least move every joint through its full range of motion every day.
- Strengthening involves moving muscles against some resistance. Strong muscles can support and protect joints.
- Conditioning exercise improves aerobic fitness.
The three components work together to improve range of motion, muscle tone and endurance, which can all improve hand function and health.
Many exercises can be done at home, but an exercise class or gym may help keep you motivated. Physical therapists and trainers can show you the best ways to exercise and offer suggestions on how to combine activities such as walking while squeezing a tennis ball with your hands or using resistance bands to strengthen your wrists and arms.
Therapeutic yoga and tai chi are other low-impact exercise options that are effective in reducing pain from tendonitis and arthritis and improving flexibility while also helping to reduce stress.
Jeff Humphrey is a physical therapist and a certified hand therapist at the Cayuga Medical Center Physical Therapy at Brentwood. His specialty areas include hand therapy, orthopedics, sports medicine, ergonomics and golf-related injuries. He is also a Certified Ergonomic Assessment Specialist, Certified Functional Capacity Evaluator and Certified Youth Coach. He can be reached at (607) 274-4159.