A powerful technique we developed for movement recovery, introduced via the video above, was created not only for people with Parkinson's, but also those recoverying from stroke or injuries (e.g. military veterans). It is based on an original concept by Deb Helfrich (the Wellness Coach who helped me start Out-Thinking Parkinson's). Deb had the unique insight that a kind of stress ball (a squeezy, bouncy ball which fit the human hand well) and which comes (or can be modified to include) an attached elastic string and a velcro finger or wrist strap, could be hugely beneficial. She based this on our discoveries of how some hand-eye co-ordination movements are relatively easy for myself. This simple prop is very versatile and we explored a wide range of movement therapy applications.
We now know that these exercises work, and have a cumulative effect with practice, because they are Vagus Nerve Stimulating. Please see our article
for further information.
Note of Caution
Many people with Parkinson's are prone to allergies, including to latex. We suggest it might be worth taking a cautious approach and to wear protective gloves while playing with these squeezy balls, and not let them touch bare flesh.
Where did we get the yo-yo balls?
These stress balls can be sourced from Amazon in the U.K. If you discover other sources of this type of toy in other countries, please let us and others know in the comments section below.
Techniques to Counteract Freezing
People with Parkinson’s may experience “freezing” or a sudden inability to move. Holding or carrying a ball in each hand with the Velcro strap attached to a finger or wrist can provide important “safety net” counter measures against such freezing. The first option is simply the action of squeezing the balls with the finger tips and then releasing. This can be done repeatedly and rhythmically until movement is initiated. If a more significant prompt is required, letting go of a ball completely can provide a more sudden signal to move. The effect is enhanced through the vibration of the elastic string as the ball drops. This can be extremely helpful in releasing the freeze. With a ball carried in each hand, this technique provides two chances to get moving again.
However, even if releasing the balls does not work at first then the act of recovering the balls, by trying to raise one hand in order to get a ball back into the other, can also work as a freeze release mechanism.
Ball Throwing for Symptom Relief
Throwing the balls can provide a wave of relief from stiffness and rigidity symptoms. The balls can be thrown forwards, upwards, out to the sides or cross-body to provide different relief and help unlock the stiffness. Following through after the ball with the hand means that the initial throwing action can be exploited to stretch out the arms too. If one can work up to throwing the ball overarm as hard as possible, e.g. against a wall, this can be very therapeutic. If starting from an initial gentle underarm throwing motion is difficult, then one ball can be released (dropped) to help initiate the throwing motion with the other arm. The balls can be recovered by pulling them back up to the hands via the attached string, lifting one hand and taking hold of the ball with the other or through a quick “yo-yo” type action. Sometimes repeatedly throwing the balls can even switch movement back on for an extended period and can enhance the uptake of a dose of medication. This can be especially useful when a dose doesn’t seem to be working very well.
Mobilization of Neck and Lower Back
Keeping the vertebra of the spine mobile is very important for people with Parkinson’s. In particular, correcting the classic stooped “Parkinson’s stance” is crucial for preventing rapid deterioration. The neck, shoulders and back in particular can become very stiff and immobile quite quickly, resulting in worsening symptoms. Gently throwing the balls in different directions and trying to follow the motion with the eyes, turning the head and/or body in the direction of the throw can help keep the neck and spine mobile. Daily practice and persistence helps to rapidly expand the range of neck and spine movement. This can help break the negative feedback between declining posture and increasing symptoms, as well as providing pain relief.
Assistance in Standing Up
Techniques such as rhythmic squeezing of the balls or dropping and recovering the balls can not only help unlock freezing, but also assist in standing up when seated or lying down, simply because these hand actions can be the signal for a larger bodily movement such as those required to stand up. The balls can also be suddenly pushed down into the seat of the chair at either side of the body to help engage the arm muscles to assist in the act of rising. Sitting down with the balls placed and held on the front of the chair seat can be a comfortable way to sit. This not only provides a gentle stretch of the arms, but also supports standing up again easily, as the arms are primed and ready to be used directly to assist the leg muscles.
Exercise While Sitting and Lying Down
Movement recovery exercises with the balls can also be performed while sitting or lying down, including practicing slow, controlled motions. Possibilities include swinging the arms upwards and over the head or stretching the arms outwards to the side. These slow motions involving only the arms can help as reminders of how to move without the whole body becoming tense. Such exercises can also relieve the symptoms and rigidity. The ability to exercise and practice movement while seated or prone is important when balance is a problem or standing is uncomfortable due to weak legs. Simple stretching exercises, where the arms are extended upwards or outwards and the positon held for several minutes can also be very therapeutic.
Small Controlled Movement Exercises
Squeezing the balls with different fingers or between the palms, passing them from hand to hand or rolling them against one another can all aid in relearning smaller controlled or rhythmic movement.
These type of exercises can also aid relaxation through distraction from discomfort and can assist in achieving a meditative state.
Walking and Posture Improvement
Holding a ball in each hand and squeezing them in a left-right rhythm can help improve the walking gait. This is an important one to practice regularly, not only due to the importance of posture correction, but also because the act of taking normal strides, whilst holding the head up, can it itself provide a great deal of relief from the symptoms and pains of Parkinson’s. The balls can also be pressed to the sides of the legs with the palms. Note how this can also be used as an exercise for finger stretching. The position of the balls can then be incrementally changed by pushing the hands against them, taking a step and then releasing the pressure on the balls. A slight movement of the hands on the release can allow a gradual exploration of the benefits of different positions. Pressing the balls against the glutes, generally the higher up the better, can result in a straightening of the posture. Gently pulling the glutes upwards or pushing them downwards slightly can also help in relearning about walking, as can pushing them against the hips.
Bringing the Hands Back into Play
When the fingers are rigid and “claw-like”, people with Parkinson’s tend to limit the use of their hands. Holding the balls in a certain position provides a way to break free from this withdrawal of hand use. Simply holding the balls and gently squeezing is a great way to mobilize stiff fingers. Initially the movement can be very slight, requiring very little pressure. The degree of squeezing action exerted can then slowly be built up to improve finger mobility and reduce stiffness. However, if the ball is seated properly in the palm and gripped only with the two smallest fingers, this leaves the thumb and first two fingers free. This type of grip therefore still allows squeezing and release of the ball with the gripping fingers, but at the same time allows manipulation of other objects using the first two fingers and the thumb. This special “ball grip” can also help with typing too.
In discussing this online, Sherryl Klingelhofer pointed out that by balancing the ball on the back of the hand this could help to stimulate the fingers into opening more easily. I tried this and it really did have a profound, immediate impact on my hand shaping.
The video below shows how we rapidly incorporated her concept into our methodology. This feels to me, after a morning exploring the concept, to be a very important step forward. I have been able to use my hands while the Parkinson's symptoms are pronounced, but also to use the new expressiveness of my hands to significantly assist my arm and leg movements too, to unlock myself when freezing, to reach out and stop myself unbalancing and more.
Fall Prevention and Recovery
The inability to reach out and push back against surfaces is a major issue when balance is also a problem. People with Parkinson’s are hence prone to falling over, but this doesn’t just include major falls to the ground. A lack of balance can result in leaning against a wall or an item of furniture and then being frozen in this toppled position. Without the hands and arms in play, becoming “unstuck” can be a real challenge. However, carrying the balls seated correctly in the palm provides a technique to cushion falls or to escape freezing while in a leaning position. A ball in the hand can be pressed or pushed against a solid surface, such as a wall or the edge of a table. This brings the arm muscles into action without having to extend the fingers, let alone having to place the hand flat. The ball also acts as a cushioning intermediary between hand and solid surface, preventing sudden harsh impacts. Pushing off from the solid surface is much easier due to the spring-like elastic nature of the balls, which can also provide enough of a “push back” signal to encourage unfreezing too.
Arm Stretching Exercises
A powerful way to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s is to use the balls to “hook” the hand around doorways and then step forwards, resulting in a good stretch of the arm backwards. Standing in this position for a few minutes can have profound impact on symptoms. With practice, a greater stretch can be achieved by leaning forwards.
The first photograph (left) shows the ball being hooked around the door frame, while the second (middle) shows the resulting stretching of the arm after taking a step forward. The third image (right) shows how an overhead stretch can also be achieved by hooking the ball around the top of the frame.
We hope to have seeded ideas about how these stress balls can be used to create assistive movement recovery programs. Simply having a set of balls, one for each hand, that are attached and readily retrievable throughout the day and through on/off symptoms cycles was a breakthrough for us. So we believe this might be of significant benefit for other people with movement problems who need to begin to relearn or to discover alternative ways of moving, overcoming faulty signals from the brain or body induced by Parkinson’s or other conditions.