The Fingers and Thumbs

By Barb Frye
[Body Awareness]

Their sensitive and flexible nature make the fingers and thumbs the best choices for palpation, energy work, grasping and light strokes, and gentle pressure. However, because of their delicate and unstable structure, the fingers and thumbs should not be used to apply deep pressure. Bringing awareness to how you use your fingers and thumbs is the best approach to ensuring their health and longevity.


When using the fingers and thumbs for palpation, use them gently and lightly. If you press too hard, you will dull their receptiveness and lose a certain amount of sensitivity.

Energy Work

The fingers and thumbs are ideally suited for modalities that palpate and manipulate the energy flow in the body (e.g., acupressure, polarity therapy, reiki, and Therapeutic Touch). To increase receptivity, breathe and let your arms and shoulders relax. This allows your body’s energy to flow freely down your arms and into your hands.

Grasping and Light Strokes

Kneading, squeezing, lifting, and pulling (traction) are examples of the grasping techniques that you can perform effectively and safely using the fingers and thumbs. When utilizing grasping techniques, move your entire hand and arm with ease. Because there are no muscles in the fingers, muscles in your hand and forearm power your fingers via the tendons. When you grasp in a repetitively forceful or strained manner, your hand and forearm tire quickly, leaving your fingers and thumbs powerless.

Manual lymphatic drainage, effleurage, and nerve strokes are examples of light strokes that are also appropriate for the fingers and thumbs. When applying light strokes, consciously breathe slowly and deeply, allowing your fingers and thumbs to relax. The tendency is to overextend the fingers and thumbs when applying light strokes. This pattern quickly fatigues the fingers and thumbs, leaving the entire hand weak and strained.

Gentle Pressure

For work on small, thin, delicate muscles and in areas where sensitive and skilled touch is required, including the face, neck, axillae, ribs, abdomen, and groin area, there are no better tools than the fingers and thumbs.

When using the fingers to apply gentle pressure, do not lock or hyperextend them. If you find yourself locking or hyperextending the fingers or thumbs, chances are you are using too much force and effort. As you can imagine, this kind of stress is also transmitted to your client. Instead, the best strategy is to keep them softly aligned. This allows your entire hand to transmit a sense of ease to your arms and shoulders, as well as to your client. There are times when you will use only two or three of the fingers in specific areas. Again, use the above strategy.               

When using one hand, reinforce your fingers with the other hand. If your fingers and/or thumbs are hypermobile (double-jointed), then you should exercise extra caution when using them for even light work.

Avoid Deep Pressure with the Thumbs

Applying force, especially in an abducted position, is the most common mistake when using the thumbs and the reason for most thumb injuries. Although flexible, the joints and muscles of the thumb are vulnerable to injury when used under pressure and in sustained abducted positions.

Reflect on how you’ve been using your thumbs. If you have the tendency to overuse them, now is the time to stop. Use them gently and in close proximity to the hand.

Barb Frye has been a massage educator and therapist since 1990. She coordinated IBM’s body mechanics program and authored Body Mechanics for Manual Therapists: A Functional Approach to Self-Care (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2010), now in its third edition. She has a massage and Feldenkrais practice at the Pluspunkt Center for Therapy and Advanced Studies near Zurich, Switzerland. Contact her at