Pilates And Arthritis – Knuckling down

Pilates and Arthritis

Grip, cut, twist, pinch, unbutton, squeeze, wring, prune, chop and type; these 10 things are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the huge array of tasks our hands are capable of performing. Unfortunately for many of us, hand and wrist arthritis can challenge both the ability to use our hands functionally and the capacity to do so without pain.

So, who has Hand Arthritis?

Whilst there are many diseases (more than 100!) that may cause arthritis of the hand, osteoarthritis is the most common, followed by rheumatoid arthritis. Around 8% of the population has osteoarthritis (self reported). Generally those affected are older than 45, (the majority are over 65), and close to 2 out of 3 are women. In the US, a study which x-rayed a group (3000+) of community  dwelling individuals , found that about 40% of 55-76 year-olds had evidence of hand arthritis (many did not report having arthritis of the hand).   

Rheumatoid arthritis, is the second most common form of arthritis and the hands in this condition are often one of the first areas to experience problems; in fact the majority of people with rheumatoid arthritis have involvement of the hand and wrist. Again, rheumatoid arthritis is more common amongst women and older age groups.


What is Hand Arthritis?

By definition, hand arthritis is a condition where there is inflammation of a joint, or joints, of the hand and wrist.  

Osteoarthritis has been seen as an essentially degenerative condition (wearing out) rather than an inflammatory condition, but recent research suggests it’s a more varied and complex disorder than this view would suggest.  


Certainly some people with osteoarthritis appear to experience more inflammation than others, in the form of tissue inflammation and/or joint effusion (extra fluid in the joint), particularly when they overload the joint (do too much). It is the synovium which lines the capsule, and lubricates and nourishes the joint, that becomes inflamed as part of the immune system’s response to bone and cartilage changes. This in turn contributes to ongoing worsening of the condition.

Digital x-rays of both hands showing severe rheumatoid arthritis affecting both wrists and hands. Deformities limiting movement and associated with pain.

Changes that can be seen on X-ray include joint space narrowing, indicating that the cartilage covering the articulating bones is thinning, osteophytes – little bony growths at the edges of the joint, and increased density of bone in areas deficient in cartilage.


Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease that is considered to be an autoimmune condition. Autoimmune means that the body seeks to defend itself against its own tissues, as if that tissue were a foreign body that needed to be destroyed. Although it can affect many parts of the body, synovial tissue (which lines the joint capsule and tendon sheaths) is a special target of rheumatoid arthritis. Synovial tissue proliferation causes local destruction of bone, cartilage, and other soft tissues.


Impact of Arthritis

Osteoarthritis often progresses slowly over the course of years, and many people who ‘have’ osteoarthritis are not even aware that they have this condition. Additionally, there is not a good correlation between pain and the severity of osteoarthritis (as seen on Xray). However many people with hand osteoarthritis do experience some pain and swelling, and many more will also exhibit stiffness, especially in the morning (usually less than 30 minutes), as well as strength and control deficits, even in the years prior to obvious X-ray changes.  This often presents as feeling weak in the hand and struggling with gripping and twisting tasks. Osteoarthritis tends to target the base of the thumb (often the non-dominant hand) and the small joints of the fingers (often the dominant hand).


When a person has osteoarthrits it is not uncommon to see mucoid cysts on the distal interphalangeal (DIP) joints of the hands. These cysts grow essentially are stalks from the damaged synovial fluid in the joint. These cysts make it difficult for a person to undertake fine motor movements eg doing up a button, or changing straps on Pilates apparatus.

Rheumatoid arthritis results in significant joint damage as the synovium releases chemicals that break down the bone and cartilage, and the surrounding muscles, ligaments, and tendons struggle to stabilise the joint. Rheumatoid arthritis is different for every person but, typically, it is a ‘symmetrical’ arthritis (affects both wrists or both hands) and it is often characterised by episodes (flares) and occasional periods of remission. Pain, warmth, redness and swelling are common symptoms when it is active and it is not uncommon for stiffness to last for an hour or two in the morning, or even longer.

Common parts of the hand affected by arthritis, include:

  • base of the thumb
  • wrist
  • fingers


How to manage Arthritis

It’s essential to have appropriate early medical management of rheumatoid arthritis. Research is indicating that bone damage happens in the first year or two of the disease, so early diagnosis and treatment which may include the use of disease modifying medications (DMARDS), is critical.

Whilst over-the-counter medications are often used for osteoarthritis, self diagnosis & treatment holds the risk of misdiagnosis, so it’s best to advise your doctor of your issues. According to EULAR (European League Against Rheumatism), osteoarthritis topical treatments such as NSAIDs and capaicin can be helpful.

The goals of treatment are often quite similar for both osteoarthritis and controlled RA: reduce pain (and swelling), increase grip strength, improve range of motion, and improve function. A preventative component is important, particularly in flare-ups of rheumatoid arthritis, and involves prevention or limitation of joint damage and minimisation of loss of range, strength, and function. The precise strategies to achieve these goals will vary depending on the individual presentation.


What does therapy have to offer?

Conservative interventions for osteoarthritis – including hand exercises, heat, education on joint protection and provision of adaptive equipment and night splints for the thumb – have all been shown to be of benefit.  For rheumatoid arthritis, exercises to improve mobility and strength have also shown significant gains in hand function. Splints may also help to reduce pain.

Advice to assist in protecting vulnerable joints (be hand friendly!) from excess load includes suggestions to:

//     Use a large grip where possible and avoid heavy lifting – 3 shopping bags in one hand can really add up to a lot of weight;
//     Use both hands rather than one, and hold items in a way that shares the load over a number of joints;
//     Avoid sustained positions (prolonged grip) or repetitive thumb movements, particularly if the thumb is under load or at extremes of range;
//     Use aids to assist where possible – the light shopping trolley vs carrying a basket, jar poppers, electric can openers and more. Lifetec (previously the Independent Living Centre) is a great place to visit to see what’s available. There are different such places around Australia and in overseas countries. As a Pilates teacher visiting such places can be useful as you can see and view ideas that can be then modified and graded in your classes.


Exercise has been shown to be beneficial for Arthritis of the Hand


As previously stated an exercise program should be tailored to address the specific deficits and presentation of each individual. It can be said of all the exercises below, that if they are not well tolerated, then modification is required. This is something we cover and discuss in our Springing This Joint course. If you are in the studio one of our teachers can take you through some simple ideas for home and work.


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