The Link Between Swollen Hands and Exercise

Hand swelling during exercise is a common problem.
Image Credit: amriphoto/E+/GettyImages

Have you ever noticed that your hands swell when you're walking? Hand swelling during exercise is a common problem, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can happen during a brisk walk or any other type of exercise that increase blood flow to your muscles.

Read more: Why Do My Fingers Swell When I Run?

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Link Between Swelling and Exercise

Hand swelling occurs when blood vessels open wider to get blood to your hands during exercise, Mayo Clinic explains, noting that the exact reason why this happens is not known.

"Walking or running causes your blood vessels to open, called vasodilation," says Tina D. Mahajan, MD, a rheumatology specialist and assistant professor of medicine at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. "Exercise makes your heart work harder to supply your body with blood and oxygen. Your blood vessels may dilate to get blood to your hands, which are farther away from your heart."

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The Mayo Clinic explains that when you exercise, before vasodilation, the first reaction of the blood vessels in your hands may be to close down or constrict so that blood can go to your heart and your lungs. Your hands may actually get cool. But as you continue to exercise, these blood vessels open up, or dilate, which leads to hand swelling and warmth.

The type of swelling you get when walking is normal but you may get a more dangerous type during competitive or long-distance running, notes the Mayo Clinic. Running can cause loss of sodium through sweating, and runners may drink lots of water, which further dilutes the amount of sodium in the blood, a condition called hyponatremia. This causes hand swelling along with confusion and vomiting — and it's a type of hand swelling that requires medical attention to replace salt.

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Other Causes of Hand Swelling

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), arthritis of the hands can cause pain, swelling and stiffness after exercise that involves gripping or grasping something with your hands. The two most common types of hand arthritis are rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. You may have morning pain and stiffness hours later or even the following day.

"Both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis start slowly," says Dr. Mahajan. "Rheumatoid arthritis usually affects the same joints in both hands. Osteoarthritis may cause less swelling and may cause more enlargement of a bony knuckle. Both of these conditions cause pain along with swelling."

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AAOS says that osteoarthritis is more common than rheumatoid arthritis and generally occurs in older people due to gradual wear and tear of joints in the hand. Rheumatoid arthritis, which is an inflammatory disease that attacks the lining of joints, usually starts in younger people, and the first joints affected may be the small joints of the hands and feet.

A dull or burning pain after joint use may be a sign of hand arthritis, so let your doctor know.

"Other causes of hand swelling include scleroderma, psoriatic arthritis, gout and diabetes," says Dr. Mahajan. She says to let your doctor know if you have the following symptoms, indicative of specific conditions:

  • Gout causes quick and very painful swelling that can occur overnight. You may have a hot, red and swollen finger joint, for example, says the Cleveland Clinic.
  • Psoriatic arthritis can cause swelling of your fingers that makes your finger (or your toes) look like sausages. This is called dactylitis, says the National Psoriasis Foundation.
  • Scleroderma causes swelling that makes your hands look puffy and shiny, explains Johns Hopkins Medicine.
  • Diabetes can cause stiffening and thickening of your fingers that prevents you from flattening your hands. A June 2018 case report in Cureus describes this often-neglected complication. You may not be able to place the palms of your hands together, in what's called the "prayer sign."

What to Do

If you have any type of hand swelling that does not go away after exercise or causes pain, you should let your doctor know. But, if your hand swelling occurs only when you're walking for exercise, the Mayo Clinic says to try these prevention tips:

  • Remove any rings and loosen any wristbands or watchbands before exercise.
  • Raise your arms away from your body while exercising and move them around in wide circles.
  • Stretch your fingers wide and make fists frequently while exercising.

Read more: What Does Swelling in the Arms After Working Out Mean?

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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