Sensory Tricks and Dystonia. Why they work, why they help.

Joaquin Farias PHD, MA, MS

Sensory stimulation, commonly called sensory tricks, are often utilised by those with dystonia to subdue movement symptoms.  They are fine to use, and can help along with a proper rehabilitation program to recover function lost to the condition.

What are some examples of sensory tricks?

A classic example is illustrated in the photo above of a woman lightly touching the  side of her face to calm Cervical dystonia movements.  Those with Oromandibular dystonia can find touching their chin helps, while some with Blepharospasm find rubbing their temples can open their eyes.  Other examples are people affected by Ankle Dystonia walking barefoot to reduce their symptoms or patients affected by Hand Dystonia using latex gloves to improve the use of their hands.

How can sensory tricks help in my recovery efforts?

Having symptom-free moments, minutes or hours is like CPR for the brain. It is a constant strengthening of the correct postures, neural connections, and muscle interactions we wish to achieve over time through rehabilitation efforts. Many will also use sensory tricks while doing specific rehabilitation movements for dystonia recovery, and this is a fine approach as it helps to bridge the divide between dysfunction and proper function. Can Sensory Tricks hurt me in any way?
No, using sensory stimulation is perfectly safe, you are just stimulating hypo-functioning sensory pathways in your brain making them healthier and more efficient.

Can I use sensory stimulation indefinitely?

 Yes you can, but our objective is to strengthen our dystonic area’s weak brain/muscle neural circuits with very specific and gentle exercises, and also practice techniques to help restore an under-active parasympathetic nervous system.  Both approaches over time will free us from the need to use the sensory tricks, or lessen the time we choose to employ them.

What tools on the Dystonia Recovery Platform can help restore proper function in weak dystonic muscle-nerve circuits?

Sensory Stimulation Exercises for Dystonia include ways to stimulate brain neural activity through skin stimulation and body remapping protocols for Dystonia.  Dystonia is a sensory-motor condition, sensory exercises are very important because they address the other side of the condition (how Dystonia affects proprioception). It is not just that it is difficult for you to move it is also that you cannot feel properly several areas of your body. By improving sensory processing (how you feel your body) you improve motor function (how you move).

They are also helpful in stimulating our relaxation centers, as connecting with your body (activating proprioceptive neural networks) can produce a neuro-relaxation response. Stress detaches you from your bodily sensations, and reconnecting with your body’s nerves and muscles induces relaxation.  An overactive stress response is a major trigger for dystonic movements, finding ways to unfurl that response is a must for recovery efforts.

The Sensory Stimulation Exercises can also help with pain levels.  The whole idea is that areas that are not properly mapped in your brain can be the source of pain. Reconnecting them can reduce or stop that pain.

If it makes you feel normal, it is probably fine to do

Those with dystonia can experience periods of normalcy, often doing things they love that produce no stress.  For some it’s hiking, for others painting or gathering with loved ones.  Those periods of normalcy are a complex ‘perfect storm of benefit’ in our neural networks that enable these breaks from symptoms.  Become aware of what is your CPR for the brain, and use them often as it will continually strengthen proper-functioning neural networks.

The same is true with sensory stimulation, sensory tricks, use them if they help you feel less symptomatic or asymptomatic.  Give your brain a much needed reminder of the ‘way things are supposed to work’.

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