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Tips to Ease Muscle Cramps for Seniors with Parkinson’s

by Renee Le Verrier, Parkinson's Disease Expert
August 28, 2015

Question: I experience frequent muscle spasms and moments where my leg freezes. Any tips to get them moving during such times?

Answer: As a yoga instructor, I’m a big fan of stretching and lengthening muscles, particularly when the rigidity of Parkinson’s affects them. When muscles are in spasm, however, it is not the time to stretch them. Stretching is best when a muscle is at rest and its opposite or synergistic muscle engages and shortens. For example, stretching the muscles in the back of the thigh (commonly known as hamstrings) involve relaxing those and using the quadriceps or front thigh muscles to bend into a stretch.

When a muscle is in spasm, it is actively contracting. Stretching it can add more strain. Imagine straightening out the sleeves of a sweater.  With a gentle hold on one end and a soft, even pull on the other, the fibers will lengthen like muscles. Pull too hard and the fibers tear, like the connective tissue in muscles.

If the sleeve were knotted, tugging on it would only make the knot tighter. Fibers on either side of the knot might give but the knot still blocks the sleeve from flattening out. Keep pulling and tearing happens.

The spasm, like the sleeve knot, needs to calm and uncoil before stretching. Sometimes, simply resting a hand on the spasm can settle it. Engaging the muscles in spasm can put them back into the contract/release pattern, such as with restless leg syndrome when walking around can alleviate the spasms. If movement helps, moving to music can be additionally beneficial. The rhythm can reset the constant “on” of the muscles into a regular “on/off” pattern. Have a favorite tune in your head and try to move to the beat. Also, engaging another set of muscles can reset the ones in spasm. Try swinging your arms in exaggerated swings or waving an imaginary flag as you walk.

If the freezing occurs in the same place, such as when going through a doorway, try masking tape. Physical therapists have shown that taping horizontal lines on the floor on either side of the doorway helps keep the flow of stepping through to the other side.

Sometimes it takes ice or heat to reset or relax. If spasms persist or get worse, check with your doctor.

Renee Le Verrier is the co-director of the APDA's Arts & Movement Program and, in partnership with the APDA, she leads a Parkinson's Yoga Teacher Training Certificate Program. She is the author of the book, "Yoga for Movement Disorders" and its Companion DVD. She is also a certified yoga instructor and specializes in creating adaptations for people living with movement disorders.

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