It can put a serious damper on the mood of even the most avid hiking enthusiast on their hiking adventure. Some hikers know the feeling all too well. The feeling, that is, of being on a hike and noticing your hands beginning to swell.

The act of hand swelling is actually quite common during exercising, and it can persist during hikes too. But the real question when you start to talk about this topic is the following. Why do hands swell when hiking?

According to the Mayo Clinic, the cause of hand swelling isn’t completely clear. However, it appears to be the result of the way your body and blood vessels respond to the increased energy demands of your muscles during exercise. Of course, there are also medical conditions that are linked to hand swelling.

We’re going to expand a bit on why the problem appears to occur, and we’re also going to detail some ways it can be prevented (or methods that can at least help). Lastly, we’ll dive further into the fact that certain medical conditions may be at play if hand swelling is a common problem for you in your life (not just during hiking).

Does that sound like a fun time or what? In all reality, it’s our goal to help you get to the root of this issue. So, let’s start by talking more about why this is one.

Why do hands swell when hiking?

We found an acorn
Photo by Ali Kazal / Unsplash

The Mayo Clinic had more to say when explaining why hand swelling can happen during exercise (which would include hiking). According to them, “Exercise increases blood flow to your heart and lungs, as well as to the muscles you’re working. This can reduce blood flow to your hands, making them cooler. In turn, the blood vessels in your hands may react by opening wider — which could lead to hand swelling.”

They continue by claiming that as you continue to exercise, your muscles will continue to generate heat, and this will force your system to push blood to the vessels that are the closest to the surface of your body. This is done to help dissipate heat, according to the clinic, and this response can trigger the act of perspiration. It’s also noted that this too could contribute to hand swelling.

Whether that information helps you at all, we don’t know. However, when answering the question of why do hands swell when hiking, it seems to be the best answer out there. More importantly, to all of you, though, is probably how you can apply this to help prevent your hands from swelling during both hiking and general exercising. Let’s dive deeper into that, shall we?

Ways to help prevent hand swelling when hiking

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In addition to explaining what causes the issue, the Mayo Clinic also detailed some tips that can help people to try and prevent hand swelling from being a persistent issue, in the first place. It’s important to note, though, that they clearly state that there’s no proven way to reduce or prevent “exercise-related hand swelling.”

However, they do claim that some of their tips can help to ease the discomfort. These tips include:

Stretch your fingers along the way

While hiking (or exercising), stretch your fingers wide and then make fists with your hands several times during the act. Of course, you could also perform virtually the same action if you use trekking poles when you hike. More on that later.

Perform arm circles

Occasionally, perform backward and forward arm circles while you’re hiking. Elevating your arms every now and then above your head can help, as well as bending your arms by gripping the shoulder straps of your backpack (if you’re carrying one). Keeping your arms in motion is the idea here, basically.

Take off your rings and/or watchbands

This last tip is something you can do BEFORE you start hiking or exercising to help with the problem. If you wear a ring or multiple rings, remove them from your finger/fingers. Additionally, if you wear a watchband, be sure to loosen it a little bit. Remember, do these before you start hiking.

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If you do forget about your ring or rings, specifically, and they get stuck on your swollen fingers, you can use lip balm or sunscreen to help slide them off.

As you can see, the main idea is to improve the blood circulation to your hands if they begin to swell.

How to improve blood circulation to your fingers

Photo by Tim Foster / Unsplash

The following two tidbits of information are kind of expanding on that idea, but we felt they were both important to bring up.

If carrying a backpack, be sure the straps aren’t too tight

Clearly, not everyone’s going to hike with a backpack as if you’re just going for a leisurely day hike, you may just bring some water and possibly a few other things that don’t require the use of a backpack. However, if you do hike with one, check the straps. Straps that are too tight on your shoulders can actually restrict the blood flow to your hands and affect the circulation, as a whole. Be sure the straps are tight enough to be comfortable, but not overly tightened. Evenif you have a sleeping bag attached!

Using trekking poles can help prevent swelling

This was alluded to earlier, and both gripping the poles and the act of moving your arms with the poles both assist in enhanced blood circulation. Basically, they keep your arms moving and promote a gripping motion with your hands. Then again, you also should ensure that you’re buying the right size hiking poles to ensure the most comfort possible.

However, it’s not guaranteed that all or any of what was just claimed will assist with this problem. There may be something more serious at play and if you find that you can’t prevent swelling with any of the above methods or find that the issue doesn’t go away after a few hours of your hiking adventure, you may have to consult with a doctor to see if something much more serious is occurring.

Your hands could swell because of a medical condition

Okay, so now is where this post is going to get a bit more serious. After all, as we mentioned, something more serious could be causing your hand swelling issues. We wanted to go over some of the most common conditions that are associated with this problem. The hope is that you don’t or aren’t suffering from any of them.

Hyponatremia

Nope, don’t confuse this with hypothermia, which is ironically almost the opposite problem (kind of). This is actually hyponatremia and no worries if you don’t know what this is, as we had to research the condition ourselves.

In the simplest of explanations, this is a condition that endurance athletes can develop, and it involves having an abnormally low level of sodium concentration in your body. A sign of this condition can be swollen fingers and hands, though other signs (such as vomiting and confusion) tend to be more prominent.

Ironically, one of the problems that can cause hyponatremia is drinking too much water during a long and strenuous event. The reason that’s ironic is staying hydrated is critically important during similar events.

Depending on the severity of the condition, immediate medical attention may be required. However, the good news for hikers is this condition is more commonly associated with long-distance running. It’s less common for hiking and backpacking.

Arthritis

Now, this is a condition that most of you have actually probably heard of. There are many different types of arthritis but, generally speaking, it’s an inflammation in the joints. It’s a leading cause of swollen fingers and hands, and it can also cause pain.

DVT

An acronym for deep vein thrombosis, DVT happens when a clot forms in a blood vessel. Said clot will block blood flow and, subsequently, can lead to swelling. The clot can be caused by different conditions and infections such as a blood clotting disorder or even cancer.

Scleroderma

They just keep getting harder to pronounce, don’t they? This one, scleroderma, is actually a connective tissue disease. It can lead to the thickening of the skin, which also includes swelling and stiffness. Often associated with Raynaud’s syndrome, which is a condition that causes the blood vessels to narrow, they both could potentially be to blame for swelling hands.

Lymphedema

Why do hands swell when hiking? We are confident in saying that not too many people would answer that question by saying, “because you have lymphedema.” However, it could be the reason.

According to Chandra Manuelpillai, an Assistant Professor at the Boston University School of Medicine:

“The swelling associated with lymphedema is caused by abnormal drainage of lymph nodes, which are part of your immune system. It is often due to a complication from cancer treatment such as removal of lymph nodes or damage from radiation treatment.

It could also occur because a cancerous mass is blocking lymphatic drainage. Or it can be due to a complication from other surgeries, as well as from infections. Elastic bandages are often used to decrease swelling and help with drainage.”

Final thoughts

This turned out to be more of a medical article than anything, which isn’t something we’re exactly known for. However, we go where the question leads us.

So, why do hands swell when hiking? It can be an issue of improper blood circulation to your hands, or possibly a more serious medical condition that will need to be addressed.

Either way, implementing the above methods of improving blood circulation will hopefully help to alleviate (or prevent) your hands from swelling the next time you go on a long hike.

And on the topic of trying to do something to help alleviate a specific issue while hiking, have you ever tried to hike on an extremely hot day? It can be downright miserable.

Thankfully, we’ve compiled a list of several tips on what you can wear on a hot weather hike to help make it more enjoyable. Can’t let the heat stop you from what you love to do, right?