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A University of Canterbury researcher wants to give people with spinal cord injuries the chance to improve their balance and ease of movement.

Spinalcordinjury research

UC PhD student Cindy Allison is seeking participants with spinal cord injuries (SCI) for the final phase of her doctoral research.

She has drawn on the work of Israeli physicist Dr Moshe Feldenkrais to develop a new group programme for disabled people that should be accessible and affordable. The Feldenkrais Method aims to improve the sensory motor system through specific movements (based on biomechanics principles) and attention to sensory feedback. Research shows it could reduce pain, fatigue, stress and medical costs, while improving mobility, stability, coordination and breathing.

“Most disabled people who use the method do so on an individual basis, which can be expensive. Working in a group gives the added benefit of inspiration – and frequent injections of humour – from others. Once people understand the principles, they may be able to complement the classes with home practice,” she says.

In 2014, Allison ran the full programme for the first time with a group of five people with long-term SCI and assistance from two University of Canterbury Physical Education student volunteers.

“Participants described the programme as having real relevance to them, with one who had had his injury for over 20 years, saying ‘crikey, why didn’t I do this a long time ago?’ The principles of the method challenge some traditional ideas about how best to improve movement,” she says.

A feature of the method is minimising effort and increasing awareness to improve ease and range of movement. Participants were often surprised at how little you needed to do to get the benefits, she says.

“By the end of each session they could see how it actually worked and resulted in better movement. Another feature that participants described as valuable was paying attention to those parts of the body that they had neglected. Distortions or loss of a sense of where your body is in space are a common consequence of SCI. Restoring the body image is valuable for balance and movement”, the research student says.

“Again they were impressed with the effectiveness of this. For example, one participant, diagnosed with complete tetraplegia 22 years before, was surprised to discover that he had mobility in his ribs and spine. They also reported improvements in their balance and control.”

Allison is seeking volunteers for the final phase of her PhD research. In this phase she will measure the effect that the lessons have on ease and range of movement, pain, spasticity and fatigue.  Potential participants would be Canterbury adults with an SCI. They will need to have had their injury for at least 12 months, be able to get on and off the floor, and be able to communicate effectively and understand English instructions.