Can squeezing a computerised stress ball help cut your blood pressure

Reducing the pressure A computerised stress ball could help to dilate and widen blood vessels

Reducing the pressure A computerised stress ball could help to dilate and widen blood vessels

A hand-held device that you squeeze for ten minutes a day could be a powerful new treatment for high blood pressure.

The gadget, a kind of computerised stress ball, boosts activity in the part of the nervous system that controls blood pressure and heart rate.

Called the parasympathetic nervous system, this is responsible for lowering blood pressure during times of rest and relaxation. It counteracts the sympathetic nervous system, which raises blood pressure and heartbeat in periods of stress and danger.

Regular aerobic exercise, such as jogging, cycling or dancing, is already known to be one of the best ways to reduce high blood pressure, or hypertension, by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. This helps vessels to dilate and widen, allowing blood to flow more freely, which causes the heart rate to drop, so there is less pressure on artery walls.

But for patients with high blood pressure who may be too ill to get the exercise they need, or who have not responded to prescription medicines, the new device could be a solution.

The condition is one of the major risk factors for heart attacks and strokes and affects one in five people in the UK.

However, this new device may help by providing a type of low-impact exercise known as isometric training. This is where muscles in the body are given a workout, but without the strain on the joints or bones that aerobic exercise or weight training require.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the Zona Plus device for use in a trial

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the Zona Plus device for use in a trial

For example, gripping something tightly in your hand while your arm rests on a table or chair makes muscles contract, but puts no strain on the wrist, elbow or shoulder joints.

Although this initially makes blood pressure rise, because the heart is pumping harder to keep the muscles fed with a good blood supply, in the long-term it is known to make it fall.

The new gadget enhances this type of exercise by precisely monitoring whether patients are using enough force when squeezing the ball to get the best results.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the new device, called the Zona Plus, for use in a trial involving 200 patients who have failed to cut their blood pressure despite taking two or more drugs.

To begin with, the patient first squeezes hard for two seconds with one hand. A microchip inside the device records this pressure, and sets it as the patient’s target rate.

Every day the patient squeezes the device as hard as they can to reach this target pressure — once they achieve it, a screen tells them to maintain this grip for two minutes. If their grip weakens, it will tell them to squeeze harder.

They rest for one minute and repeat it with the other hand, before repeating the process again. The whole routine takes around ten minutes.

It can be done while watching TV or sitting at a desk.

In a study, published in the Journal Of Hypertension in 2010, researchers found this kind of isometric hand-grip training reduced blood pressure readings by an average of 10 per cent in just four weeks.

And research published in January from scientists at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, showed doing it for just three days a week for eight weeks reduced systolic blood pressure from an average of 125mmHg to 120mmHg, and diastolic pressure from 90mmHg to 87 mmHg (the ideal limit is a systolic reading of 120mmHg and a diastolic reading of 85mmHg).

The Zona Plus device is currently on sale in the U.S. at around 250, but is unlikely to be available in the UK for at least a year.

Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of the Blood Pressure Association, says more evidence is needed on the efficacy of isometric hand-grip training as a remedy. ‘This is potentially an interesting development, but I don’t think on its own it’s going to solve the hyper-tension problem,’ he says.

‘It’s more important for people who have high blood pressure to cut down on their salt intake, exercise often, as well as eat more fruit and vegetables.’