When RA Affects Your Hands and Fingers

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 16, 2023
5 min read

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can affect any joint in your body, including those in your hands and fingers. You may have:

  • Hand pain, finger pain, swelling, and stiffness
  • Hand joints and finger joints that are warm and tender to the touch
  • The same joints affected on both sides of your body (both wrists, for instance)
  • Misshapen finger joints
  • Carpal tunnel symptoms such as numbness and tingling of the hands
  • Fatigue
  • Pain and stiffness that last for more than an hour when you wake up

Scientists don’t know what causes RA precisely. Most experts feel that a genetically predisposed person is exposed to a triggering event (like an infection) that starts the chronic inflammation.

Hormones may also play a role. For instance, RA is more common in women than in men. It tends to improve with pregnancy. But it may get worse after the baby is born.

Your doctor will make a plan based on your needs, including:

  • Medications
  • Rest and exercise
  • Splints and special arthritis aids that take pressure off of painful joints
  • Managing stress
  • Avoiding foods that trigger inflammation
  • Eating foods that curb inflammation, such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish such as salmon or in flax oil
  • Regular medical checkups
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery, if joints are severely damaged

There are different types of drugs for RA. You would take some of them for pain and others to slow or stop the disease.

Regular exercise is very important to make your hands and fingers more flexible. You also need to rest painful joints. It helps to use hand or finger splints to ease pressure if your RA flares up.

To exercise your hands and fingers, you can use a soft foam ball like a Nerf ball (not a hard tennis ball). Squeeze it and then relax your hand muscles.

Ask an occupational therapist about gadgets and devices that may help make everyday activities easier, at home or on the job. For instance:

  • Use hook and loop fasteners to replace buttons on clothing.
  • Add accessories to doorknobs for easier turning.
  • Use lamp switches that require just a touch to the lamp base rather than twisting a small knob switch.
  • Try a long-handled shoehorn to put on your shoes so you don’t have to bend over and stretch your hands.
  • Use lightweight household utensils, pots, pans, cups, and dishes.
  • Put foam padding around your pen or pencil. These are available at most office supply stores.


Fingertip Touches

  1. Hold your arms up in a relaxed position, bent at the elbows with palms outward.
  2. Start with your index finger and bend it slowly downward to touch your thumb, and then open your hand back up.
  3. Do the same with your middle finger, ring finger, and pinky.
  4. Repeat as many times as needed with each hand.

Thumb Crosses

  1. Hold your arms up in a relaxed position, bent at the elbows with your palms out.
  2. Bend your thumb slowly until it touches your palm near the base of your little finger.
  3. Return your thumb to its original position.
  4. Repeat as many times as necessary with each hand.

Finger Curls

  1. With your palms facing away from you, roll your fingers slowly from the tips downward until you can touch your palms with your fingertips.
  2. Cross your thumbs in front, making a loose fist.
  3. Slowly open your hand back up.
  4. Repeat as many times as necessary with each hand.

Finger Lifts

  1. Put one hand flat on a table with your palm down and your fingers spread.
  2. While keeping your other digits as flat as possible, slowly lift your thumb as high as you can.
  3. Hold for a few seconds and then put it down.
  4. Repeat for each finger and then switch hands.
  5. Repeat as many times as you need with each hand.

Finger Walking

  1. Start with your hands on the surface of the table, palms facing down with fingers stretched out.
  2. Keeping your thumbs in place and in contact with the table, walk the fingers of each hand back under your palms.
  3. Then slowly return them to where they started.
  4. Repeat as many times as necessary with each hand.

Tug of War

  1. Put an envelope or card between your thumb and index finger.
  2. With your other hand, try to pull the envelope or card free for a count of three, but resist the pull with your thumb and index finger.
  3. Repeat using the thumb and each of the other fingers on your hand to resist the pull of your other hand.
  4. Repeat using the other hand to hold the envelope or card.

Making a 'C'

  1. Start by holding your hand and fingers straight and close together.
  2. Gently curve your fingers into a “C” shape, as if you’re holding a can or bottle.
  3. Slowly return your hand to the starting position.
  4. Repeat as many times as necessary with each hand.

Finger Spreads

  1. Rest your hand on a flat surface, such as a tabletop, with your palm facing down.
  2. Move your thumb away from your hand.
  3. Beginning with your index finger, move it up and over to your thumb.
  4. Continue with each of your other fingers, one at a time up and toward your thumb.
  5. Repeat as many times as necessary with each hand.

Always check with your doctor or physical therapist before you begin any exercise program. They’ll know which activities are best for you.

Both of these simple methods can ease RA pain and stiffness.

Use a warm, moist compress (or towel or heating pad) on your fingers and hands for 15 minutes before you exercise.

To reduce swelling, use ice packs. Put an ice pack on the painful joint for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.

You may want to switch between moist heat and ice packs. Experiment to find out what works best for you, and then make it part of your routine before and after exercise. Read more about heat and cold therapy for arthritis pain.

This happens when the base of the finger and the outermost joint bend, while the middle joint straightens. Over time, this imbalance of the finger joints can result in the crooked “swan-neck” position. Rheumatoid arthritis can cause it.

A swan-neck deformity can make it almost impossible to bend the affected finger normally. It can make it hard to button shirts, grip a glass, or pinch with the fingers.

Treatment may include:

  • Finger splints or ring splints
  • Surgery to realign the joints or fuse the joints so they work better

Rheumatoid arthritis can cause boutonniere deformity, also called buttonhole deformity.

The middle finger joint will bend toward the palm while the outer finger joint may bend opposite the palm. It may be the result of chronic inflammation of the finger's middle joint.

Treatment may include splinting to keep the middle joint extended. Some cases need surgery. 

Get more information on other RA joint deformities.