Having stiff fingers can be troubling, as can any loss of mobility. While arthritis is a key cause of finger stiffness, there are others, and a doctor will want to explore the issue thoroughly before recommending treatment.

In this article, we look at various causes of stiff fingers and their accompanying symptoms, as well as the treatments available. We also describe stretches and exercises that may help restore flexibility to the hands.

Injuries

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Some causes of stiff fingers include injuries, arthritis, and stenosing tenosynovitis.

Difficulty moving the fingers and a sensation of stiffness can result from a hand injury, such as a:

Other symptoms of a hand injury include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • redness
  • warmth in the area
  • bruising

If a person experiences any of these symptoms, they should see a doctor.

Arthritis

Arthritis commonly causes stiffness in the hands and fingers. The symptoms steadily get worse as the condition progresses.

There are many forms of arthritis, and only a health professional can identify the form and the best course of treatment.

Some types of arthritis become increasingly common with age. For instance, a study from 2018 reports that osteoarthritis affects 60–70% of the population over the age of 65.

Symptoms of arthritis can become more noticeable with time, and identifying them early is important for slowing the progression of the disorder.

Along with stiffness, look out for:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • difficulty moving joints, such those in the knees or ankles

Stenosing tenosynovitis

Stenosing tenosynovitis, or trigger finger, occurs when the protective sheath around the tendons in the affected finger becomes inflamed. This inflammation can prevent the tendon from moving as freely as it should.

The finger may snap into a bent or straight position, rather than moving smoothly, or it may become locked in a bent position. A person with trigger finger may also experience pain in the area.

Dupuytren's contracture

Dupuytren's contracture, or palmar fibromatosis, causes the collagen tissues under the skin of the palm to gradually thicken and tighten.

Knots in this tissue can form a cord-like structure under the skin, which may pull one or more fingers into a bent position.

Dupuytren's contracture tends to affect the pinkie and ring fingers and generally progresses very slowly.

Other symptoms to look out for include:

  • dimpled or marked skin on the palms
  • painless lumps of tissue in the palm

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A doctor may carry out a physical examination when diagnosing the cause of finger stiffness.

When diagnosing the cause of finger stiffness, the doctor will likely ask about the person's activity levels and symptoms, as well as any injuries in the days leading up to the appointment.

They will also perform a physical examination to check the range of motion and assess symptoms.

Imaging tests, such as X-rays, are a regular part of the process. Looking at the underlying structures in the hand can help the doctor identify anything irregular, such as damage.

In some cases, a doctor may use a CT or MRI scan to get a closer look at the structures in the hand.

Treatment largely depends on the underlying cause of the stiffness, but it may involve:

Home care

Ice or heat packs and over-the-counter pain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, can help relieve symptoms.

Splints or casts

These can help stretch tight joints or keep bones in place.

Steroids

Steroid injections may provide some relief, depending on the underlying cause.

Enzymes

Certain enzymes may help break up knotted tissues.

Surgery

In some cases, such as many cases of trigger finger, a person will need surgery and physical therapy.

Hand stretches are an important part of treatment, and they may help prevent or ease stiffness.

Various stretches can help promote a full hand function and range of motion. For example, authors of a 2017 study published in BMJ Open found that participants with rheumatoid arthritis had improved hand function after practicing hand exercises.

They also noted that while long term adherence to stretching exercises can be difficult, it is crucial for improving hand function.

Hand and finger stretches are not a replacement for treatment, but in many cases, they can be complementary.

Depending on the cause of stiffness, the doctor may recommend specific exercises. Always follow the guidance of a doctor or physical therapist.

Below, find a few examples of stretches for stiff fingers.

Gentle fist

Practicing making a soft fist can help promote motion in the hand.

  • Open the hand, spreading the fingers as far as possible.
  • Make a gentle fist with the thumb over the rest of the fingers.
  • Do not clench too tightly.
  • Hold the position for 45 seconds.
  • Repeat the process five times each day.

This should not cause pain and should help the hand feel more open and mobile.

Finger flexing

This helps promote a range of motion in the tendons and muscles.

  • Place the arm and hand flat on a table, with the palm facing up.
  • Keeping the wrist straight, bring the fingers slowly toward the palm.
  • Slowly release the fingers until they lay flat on the table again.
  • Repeat the process 10 times.

Finger touches

Finger touches promote a range of motion in the thumb.

  • With the palm facing up, bring the fingers straight up.
  • Bend the thumb across the palm to touch the base of the pinkie, holding this position for 5 seconds.
  • Move the thumb back to its normal position.
  • Do this again, touching the thumb to the bases of the other fingers.
  • Repeat this set five times.

Finger stretch

This stretches all of the fingers at once and may help improve the range of motion.

  • Start with the hand flat on a table, with the palm facing down.
  • Apply slight pressure, so that the fingers lie as straight and flat against the table as possible without forcing the joints or causing pain.
  • Hold this for up to 60 seconds, then release the position.
  • Repeat this five times each day.

Fingertip stretch

This stretch promotes a range of motion in the tips of the fingers.

  • Hold the hand vertically, with the palm facing toward the body.
  • Bring the fingertips down, so they touch the top of the palm.
  • Hold this position for 30 seconds, then release it.
  • Repeat this five times daily on each hand.

Grip and pinch strengtheners

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A grip strengthener may increase strength in the muscles of the hands.

Doctors may also recommend exercises with grip and pinch strengtheners. These are soft, springy balls or putty that provide some resistance when the person squeezes or pinches them.

  • Squeeze a grip strengthener as hard as possible without causing pain.
  • Hold this position for a few seconds at a time, before relaxing.
  • Repeat this 10–15 times per day.
  • It may be a good idea to alternate hands on different days, to allow each hand to rest.
  • Pinch a softer pinch strengthener between all five fingers as hard as possible without causing pain.
  • Hold the pinch for up to 30 seconds before releasing it.
  • Repeat this up to 15 times per day.
  • Try alternating hands on different days, to allow each hand to rest.

Exercising with these tools is important to increase strength in the muscles of the hands and fingers.

Stiff fingers can be cumbersome, and arthritis or minor injuries are common causes. In some cases, health issues involving the bones, connective tissues, or muscles in the hand are responsible.

A doctor can diagnose the cause and recommend the best course of treatment.

Stretching the hands and fingers can help prevent stiffness, and exercises often complement treatment.