Why Your Hands and Fingers Swell When You Walk or Run

senior woman walking on coastal mountain trail

Verywell

If you notice that your hands swell when you go for a walk or run, you are not alone. Puffy hands and fingers are commonly experienced by walkers, hikers, and runners. The condition can be uncomfortable. You might also worry that it is a sign of a health problem.

In most cases, the puffiness will subside after you complete your workout. But if the swelling persists, you should consider consulting your health provider. There are certain conditions associated with swelling that may require medical attention.

Why Your Hands Swell When You Walk or Run

Even though exercise-related hand swelling is a common complaint, there is very little research investigating the causes or best treatment for the condition. In fact, the authors of one study published in 2011 noted that the issue of post-ambulatory hand swelling (also called "big hand syndrome") has been "totally ignored by the scientific literature."

The researchers did note, however, that in their very limited evaluation, about one in four people experienced the condition when walking their dogs and that women were more than twice as likely to report hand swelling after exercise.

They also considered a few possible explanations for the condition. For example, they noted that at least one researcher suggested that improper arm motion could lead to swelling (forcing excess fluid into the hands by centrifugal force) or that exercise-altered metabolic rates might be responsible.

There are also many possible causes discussed among hikers and walkers. While not supported by clinical evidence, many athletes have their own theories about why the condition occurs.

For example, in an informal online forum, long-distance walker Melanie Jonker polled walkers and runners to see if they experienced swollen hands and how they dealt with the problem. Many reported more hand swelling during long walks or runs in warm weather, although some have the problem in cool weather. Some also thought they had more hand swelling at higher altitudes. The good news is that none of those polled said their health care provider found this problem to be serious.

illustration of female funner with swollen hands and caption
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell

The factors that are believed to lead to bloated hands and fingers include:

  • Blood Flow: When you go for a brisk walk or run on a cold day, you probably notice that your hands start off cold but they warm up as you exercise and raise your heart rate. Your increased heart rate sends more blood out to your extremities. As you produce more internal heat from exercise, you need to perspire to keep from overheating. Your hands and feet are part of this system, and so there is more blood flow out to the capillaries, which can mean that your fingers and hands swell. You may also notice that your feet get puffy as well.
  • Electrolyte Imbalance: Electrolytes are the salts in your bloodstream, which must be kept in balance to prevent swelling in your tissues (edema). When you sweat, you lose salt. When you eat too much salt your body has to work to balance it by retaining more fluid. You may have swelling in either case. Appropriate use of a sports drink that replaces electrolytes, as well as taking in the right volume of fluid (not too much, not too little) are keys to maintaining electrolyte balance. You should follow the drinking guidelines for fitness walkers and runners so you are getting the appropriate amount of fluids.
  • Arm Motion (or Lack of It): There is some debate on whether certain types of arm motion force more fluid into the hands. Walking with your hands constantly below your heart makes it more difficult for the circulatory system to return your blood flow back from your hands. Your muscles in your arms and legs help assist the return of blood through the veins to the heat. If you aren't using your arm muscles, you will have a slower return of blood and it can pool in your hands.

10 Tips for Preventing and Treating Swollen Hands and Fingers

Swollen hands are usually just one of the weird things that happen to your body when you go for a long walk or run. To prevent or alleviate this problem, you can take these suggestions compiled provided by participants of the online forum:

  • Remove your rings and loosen any wristbands prior to a walk. If you have a lot of finger swelling, rings can become uncomfortably tight. Leave them safely at home. Loosen your wristwatch or fitness band strap.
  • Wear pulse detectors higher on your wrist. If your fitness band or smartwatch needs to be tight for detecting your heart rate, wear it higher on your wrist or forearm rather than at the narrowest part of your wrist.
  • Balance your water and salt intake. You lose both water and salt when you sweat. Drink sports drink after the first hour when walking and sweating. When possible, weigh yourself before, during, and after your walk so you can see whether you are drinking too much or too little. Your weight should remain the same. For endurance walks, follow the marathon/half marathon drinking guidelines. For health, you may want to check your salt intake to see whether you are exceeding the recommended guidelines.
  • Carry a walking stick and switch hands while you walk. This will increase the use of the muscles in your hands and arm and that might assist returning blood to your heart.
  • Carry a small object to grip lightly from time to time as you walk, such as a small foam pad, rubber ball, map, or flashlight. This will work your arm muscles and improve the return of blood to your heart.
  • Do arm circles every few minutes, forward and backward. This will also help loosen up your shoulders. Take this as an opportunity to check your walking posture.
  • Don't clench your hands, keep them relaxed and slightly open. Every so often, stretch all of your fingers out for a few seconds and then make a fist. Repeat this several times. Or, sort of "play the piano or accordion," with your fingers only.
  • Use correct arm motion. Racewalking coach Bonnie Stein of Acewalker.com recommends using correct arm motion with your arm bent at almost a 90-degree angle and swinging back and forth from a relaxed shoulder, rather than opening and closing the arm at the elbow.
  • Play stick-em-up. Rest your hands on top of your head for a few seconds to get them above the level of your heart.
  • Exercise during cooler parts of the day. Swollen hands are more common in hotter weather, so choosing the coolest part of the day for a walk or run or turning up the air conditioning when you are the treadmill may help reduce the problem.

Keep in mind that these solutions might not completely prevent swollen hands, as they are a normal thing that happens when you exercise, especially in warm or hot weather. Your body is trying to keep itself cool, and sending blood out to your fingers is one of the ways it does it.

Other Causes of Hand Swelling

If your hand swelling is the normal swelling seen by most people when they walk or run, it will go away in a few minutes after you stop exercising and have cooled down completely. The fluid is reabsorbed into your cells or returned into circulation by the lymphatic system.

If your hands remain swollen for a long time or if you have any pain, redness, or a weak grip, these are signs that need to be checked by your doctor.

You may have swelling due to cellulitis (an infection), nail infection, water retention, osteoarthritis, gout, pseudogout, carpal tunnel, and other processes. You can have sudden hand swelling due to insect bites and stings, poison ivy, sunburn, a hand injury, or a sudden flare of an infection. If only one hand is swollen, that can also be a sign that you need to see your doctor.

Swelling is also a side effect of some medications, such as those for high blood pressure, steroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, estrogens, and some diabetes medications.

A Word From Verywell

Swollen hands are a normal part of walking or running, so don't let fat fingers keep you from enjoying physical activity. But you may want to discuss this with your doctor, especially if you notice swelling continuing after exercise or if the swelling is only in one hand. If you get normal hand swelling, have some fun doing hand exercises while you walk.

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  1. Ravaglia FF, Leite MG, Bracellos TF, Cliquet A Jr. Postambulatory hand swelling (big hand syndrome): prevalence, demographics, and association with dog walkingISRN Rheumatol. 2011;2011:659695. doi:10.5402/2011/659695

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