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Rigidity – meaning stiff or inflexible muscles – is one of the main motor symptoms of Parkinson's, along with tremor and slowness of movement (bradykinesia). Muscles become rigid because of their inability to relax.

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Rigidity and Parkinson's

It has been estimated that between 90-99% of people with Parkinson’s experience rigidity. Rigidity is often associated with slowness of movement (bradykinesia). It is often preceded by aching, stiffness or a feeling of weakness in the muscles.

Rigidity can prevent muscles from stretching and relaxing as they should. As a consequence rigidity may be experienced as:

  • stiff and/or inflexible muscles
  • reduced facial expression or a mask-like face
  • the stooped posture commonly associated with Parkinson’s
  • pain and muscle cramps
  • difficulty turning when walking, turning in bed and getting out of a chair or bed
  • reduced arm swing when walking
  • difficulty with everyday activities such as dressing, cutting food and writing.

Everyone’s experience is different but often rigidity starts in one arm, spreads to the leg on that side and then to the trunk and other side of the body. Rigidity will progress faster in some people than in others.

Reduced dopamine levels are thought to disrupt the balance between the muscles which extend and relax for each movement, resulting in rigidity.

Diagnosing rigidity

A doctor will test for rigidity by flexing and extending your relaxed wrist and the elbow joint. He or she will look for sustained (lead pipe) rigidity when performing these tests or intermittent (cogwheel) rigidity if you also have tremor.

Treating and managing rigidity

Talk to your doctor as rigidity tends to respond well to medication, for example levodopa. As with all Parkinson’s medications though, what works for one person may not work for another. Be prepared for your doctor to try several approaches to see what works best for you.

He or she may refer you to a doctor who specialises in movement disorders or to a physiotherapist, occupational therapist or speech and language therapist depending on the country in which you live and your individual needs. Seeing a therapist soon after problems begin is more likely to result in successful treatment.

Treatment varies from country to country but the following broadly outlines the support you might receive:

  • A physiotherapist can advise on exercises to maintain or improve both mobility and the range of movement in your muscles and joints. He or she can also suggest strategies to perform daily activities in a more effective way, for example how to roll in bed or get up from a chair. 
  • An occupational therapist or physiotherapist will be able to advise on devices and aids to help you in your everyday life. An occupational therapist will also be able to suggest changes to your routine to help you to stay mobile and independent.
  • A speech therapist can teach you facial exercises to help with speech and communication.

How can I help myself?

Try to keep active in spite of rigidity as this will help you maintain flexibility, mobility and independence. Regular exercise can also help to strengthen muscles and alleviate the pain and aches that often accompany rigidity.

The following suggestions may help:

  • Continue your normal routine and daily activities as long as you are able.
  • Follow a simple exercise programme to keep your muscles flexible and strong.
  • Adjust your routine so that you do things that might tire your muscles when you feel least stiff (usually when medication is working well).
  • Remove or firmly secure loose rugs that you can trip over, and rearrange furniture to make it easier to move around at home.
  • Maintain a positive attitude – this can help with all sorts of difficulties.

Many people have discovered and developed activities and exercises that help with rigidity and mobility – their own personal ‘coping strategies’. Although these won’t work for everyone, watching some of the video clips on Coping Strategies - Tips & Tricks may help you discover and develop strategies of your own, for example juggling to avoid stiffness.

  • Bouncing a ball to reduce stiffness - watch our video
  • Juggling to reduce stiffness - watch our video
  • Bouncing ball game - watch our video 
  • Running to reduce stiffness - watch our video 
  • Climbing stairs to manage stiffness - watch our video
  • Using exercise to manage stiffness at work - watch our video 
  • Loosening up to avoid falling - watch our video

Content last reviewed: February 2016

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