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Read Time 10 min

Coming to your senses

It’s common for people living with Parkinson’s disease to struggle with balance and movement. We’ll show you some easy sensory integration exercises to try at home that will help keep you fit and focused.

Sensory integration is the term used to describe processes in the brain that allow us to take the information we receive from our five senses, organize it and respond accordingly. Taste, touch, sight, smell and sound are all sensory experiences that our brains can decipher and react to in milliseconds.

Sensory integration develops during our first years of life and builds the foundation for more complex learning and social behaviors later on. In addition to our five senses, we have a vestibular sense (awareness of balance and movement) and a proprioceptive sense (awareness of the body in space).

The vestibular system includes the parts of the inner ear and brain that control balance, eye movement and spatial orientation. The proprioceptive system is located in our muscles and joints. Raising our arm above our head and knowing its exact placement in space even with our eyes are closed is an example of proprioception.

People with Parkinson’s may have sensory processing deficits that can cause them to have difficulty with balance, motor skills and hand-eye coordination. It’s common for them to have impaired proprioception and vestibular dysfunction, making it difficult to do things like walk, write or multitask.

The good news is that the human brain is capable of change and adaptation at any age. By strategically engaging all the senses, we can retrain the brain to take bigger and faster steps, improve our handwriting or perform multiple tasks at once.

Sensory integration exercises

Here are some examples of sensory integration exercises you can try at home. It is recommended that you first try these under the supervision of your physician, physical or occupational therapist.

  1. Bend forward and pick up objects from the ground. Then bend side to side to pick up objects from the ground.
  2. Change from a seated position to a standing position with eyes open. Then try it with eyes closed. Make sure you have someone nearby to assist if you become dizzy or disoriented.
  3. Sit in a chair and toss a ball back and forth from hand to hand at eye level. Then try tossing a ball back and forth from hand to hand below the knees.
  4. Stand behind a chair and hold onto the back of it. Lift up your right foot and balance on your left foot. Hold that position for as long as you can, then switch feet. When this becomes easy, increase the challenge by standing on one foot for one minute without holding onto the chair.
  5. Stand behind a chair and imagine that you are in the center of a clock, with the number 12 is directly in front of you and the number 6 directly behind you. Hold the chair with your left hand. Lift your right leg and extend your right arm so it’s pointing to the number 12. Then, point your arm towards the number 3, and finally, point it behind you at the number 6. Look straight ahead the whole time. Repeat this exercise twice per side.
  6. Using carpet or an exercise mat to protect your knees, get on all fours on the floor in a table-top position. While looking at the floor, extend your right arm and left leg at the same time. Then repeat on the other side, extending your left arm and right leg at the same time.
  7. Walk heel to toe. Put your right foot in front of your left foot so that the heel of your right foot touches the top of the toes of your left foot. Move your left foot in front of your right, putting your weight on your heel. Then, shift your weight to your toes. Walk this way for 20 steps.
  8. Want something more challenging? Try playing games that involve stooping, stretching and aiming. Examples include bowling, billiards or throwing darts. The key is to find something fun, safe and stimulating.

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