Physical Therapy for Parkinson’s Disease
What is Parkinson’s?
Parkinson’s affects about a million adults in the United States. It is a progressive nuerodegenerative disorder meaning that over time it does get worse, and that it’s caused by degeneration of neurons in the brain. The specific neurons affected produce a chemical called dopamine. Parkinson’s causes tremor, slow movement, loss of coordination, and muscle stiffness.
While Parkinson’s does not have a cure, symptoms can be managed, and progression can be slowed allowing people with Parkinson’s to live a high quality and active life.
What can be done?
Currently, the primary treatments for Parkinson’s are medication and exercise. There are surgical options for people who have exhausted the medications available, or who suffer profound motor deficits. Additional studies are ongoing looking at medical marijuana and other complementary or alternative treatments as well.
It is important for people with Parkinson’s to work closely with their neurologist because each patient will require a different combination of medications.
The first choice for many patients will be one of the levadopa drugs. This chemical is converted into dopamine in the brain to reduce symptoms like tremor, rigidity, and poor coordination.
There are other drugs that may be used in place of, or in combination with levadopa to manage symptoms. Most patients will need ongoing assessments and changes in their medication regimen as their symptoms progress and change
Research has shown that exercise can help with both motor and non-motor symptoms in people with Parkinson’s. The most important thing for people with Parkinson’s is to get started with exercise early in the disease process and to be consistent with exercise. Your exercise program should focus on a few different components:
- Flexibility exercises
- Aerobic activity
- Muscle strengthening
Some types of exercise like Tai Chi, yoga, Pilates, biking, or dancing combine several of these elements.
Your physical therapist will complete an individualized evaluation to determine the areas where you have the most trouble, then work with you to design an exercise program to address these areas. They can help you find beneficial types of exercise that you enjoy, which will help you stay consistent with your program and reap the most benefits.
There are exercise programs specifically designed for treatment of Parkinson’s disease, including the LSVT BIG program. This is a program delivered by a specially trained physical therapist over 16 sessions that focuses on getting people to make bigger movements. The BIG program has been shown to improve balance, increase quality of life, and help people walk faster with bigger steps.
While there is no one answer to manage symptoms and slow progression of Parkinson’s disease, working with your physician and your physical therapist using a combination of medication and exercise has been shown to lead to the highest quality of life.