Therapy Putty for Rheumatoid Arthritis: Everything You Need to Know

Putty isn’t just for kids. Try these occupational-therapy hand exercises especially for people with RA.

hand holding therapy putty
Roll it, pinch it, squeeze it! You can use putty to improve your ability to perform such daily tasks as opening jars.Adobe Stock

Hand exercises can be helpful for people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). They can increase flexibility, range of motion, dexterity, and grip strength. And some research suggests they can improve hand function.

One tool occupational therapists often use with RA patients is therapy putty. This special putty provides resistance and also can make hand exercises fun.

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In conjunction with RA medication, therapy putty exercises can reduce symptoms. “We regularly use therapy putty in our clinic," says Roxanne Perry, an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist in Armonk, New York. “It’s a great tool for people with rheumatoid arthritis to also use at home.”

How Therapy Putty Can Strengthen Hand Muscles and Help Joints

The advantage of therapy putty over other hand-enhancing tools, such as a stress ball, is that it’s so malleable. You can roll it, squeeze it, and pinch it. Because it's pliable, you can work to your full range of motion when you squeeze. “The nice thing about therapy putty is you don’t have to squeeze it really hard for it to give. You can work with it as gently or aggressively as you want,” Perry observes.

The softest therapy putties are useful for improving the range of motion in your joints. “Range of motion is important for function, from being able to open your hand enough not to get it caught on your shirt sleeve to closed enough so you can button your coat,” Perry says.

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Once you’ve improved your range, you can use slightly firmer putties to increase hand strength — important for everything from lifting objects to holding a full mug of morning coffee.

Before beginning, it’s important to check with a hand therapist to be sure therapy putty is right for you, Perry says. “If it's not used correctly it can lead to more problems with the hand,” she says.

Also, if pain increases from its use, you should stop using it, she says.

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Customize Hand Work With Different Putty Resistance Levels

Therapy putty comes in a range of strengths, from extra soft to extra firm (each package comes in three to five strengths, depending on the brand), so you can put as much or as little resistance on your joints as you want.

Each strength is color coded. The softest may be the color yellow, for example, while a slightly firmer might be green.

You can break each putty into smaller pieces to use for isometric exercises, says Genie Lieberman, the director of the Gloria Drummond Physical Rehabilitation Institute at?Boca Raton Regional Hospital in Florida.

Get Started Using Occupational Therapy Putty

You can buy therapy putty in medical supply stores or purchase it online, often in packs of four to six strengths.

One set of putty can last for years, since it doesn’t dry out the way play putties do, but if you don’t use it carefully it can pick up specks of dirt or sand that make it unpleasant to use. Be careful to return the putty to its container as soon as you finish, since carpet or clothing fibers may not wash out. And don’t store the putty in a hot car, as it can turn to liquid.

You can make your own putty if you don’t want to buy it. Ingredients include white glue, cornstarch, borax, hot water, and optional food coloring. The American Stroke Foundation provides a video instruction for how to do this.

Choose the Correct Therapy Putty Firmness

You’ll want to start with the softest putty to work your joint range of motion. After a few times, you can move up to the next strength level.

“Watch how you feel. If you develop pain or stiffness, go back to the softer one,” Perry says. After a few times, if you still feel good, you can go to the next grade up. Perry recommends that people with rheumatoid arthritis go no higher than medium resistance, to avoid triggering joint flares. If you feel like you need something stronger, chill the putty in the refrigerator. When you take it out, it will be a little firmer until it warms up.

Therapy Putty Exercises for People With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Experts say there is a wide range of hand exercises people with RA can do with putty to feel better and perhaps improve function. We’ve provided a few to get you started. Talk to your physical therapist or another RA healthcare provider before you begin or for other exercises geared especially for you.

Therapy Putty Exercise 1: Roll With Flat Hand

Works on: range of motion in your fingers, elbow, and forearms

  1. Remove the softest putty from the container. Place it on a counter or table.
  2. Keeping your hand flat, roll the putty back and forth until it makes a long “hot dog” shape. Continue rolling for several minutes.
  3. Switch hands and repeat.

Therapy Putty Exercise 2: Squeeze the Hot Dog

Works on: finger range of motion

  1. Continue with the piece of putty from the prior exercise.
  2. Pick it up with one hand and gently squeeze it until your fingers come to your palm (or close to your palm).
  3. Continue squeezing for several minutes.
  4. Switch hands and repeat.

Therapy Putty Exercise 3: Pinch a Soda Can Tab

Works on: dexterity, strength

  1. Work the putty into a blob-like shape.
  2. Place it on the table and use the thumb and index finger (on your dominant hand) to mimic the movements of popping open a can of soda.
  3. Repeat several times.
  4. Next, use your whole hand in a sideways motion to pretend you’re opening a jar of pickles. You can continue to use the putty to practice other actions you have trouble with, to help build up to the real thing.

Therapy Putty Exercise 4: Roll Little Pieces With Fingers

Works on: dexterity and fine motor coordination

  1. Break off a small piece of putty.
  2. Using your thumb and index finger, roll the putty into a little ball. Continue for a minute.
  3. Pinch the putty several times between those same fingers.
  4. Switch hands and repeat.

Therapy Putty Exercise 5: Spread the Claw

Works on: dexterity, strength

  1. Flatten a piece of putty.
  2. Make a claw with one hand.
  3. Place your "claw" into the putty.
  4. Push the fingers away from each other while they stay in the putty, widening the claw. Continue for a minute.
  5. Repeat with the other hand.

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