For many years, it was thought that people in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease could do nothing but wait for the disorder’s inevitable progression. But that perspective is being challenged by the results of researchers who are using physical therapy to treat some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s.
“There has really been a big shift in treatment,” Sandy Fini, a New York physical therapist specializing in Parkinson’s disease, told The Journal News Oct. 27. “Now most doctors and neurologists and movement disorder specialists are referring people for therapy from day one.”
Parkinson’s is a neurological disorder that primarily affects the elderly. The disease causes neurons to malfunction, inhibiting speech and movement.
Its complications, such as frequent falls, make it the 14th most common cause of death among Americans, according to Des Moines NBC affiliate WHO. Every year, approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
The disease’s progression causes patients to develop tremors, difficulty walking and even trouble talking. Tasks most people take for granted — getting out of bed, picking up a spoon or calling out to a friend or spouse — become challenging or even impossible.
WHO’s coverage Oct. 7 featured Parkinson’s patient Jim Rush. Physical therapy has helped reduce his falls, his wife says. “He stays more active. He gets around better,” Roberta Rush told the station.
The Benefits of Physical Therapy
Most people are familiar with physical therapy as it relates to rehabilitation after an injury or medical procedure. But more generally, physical therapy is focused on optimizing human movement.
For Parkinson’s patients, this can take several forms.
Since Parkinson’s causes slowness of movement and muscle rigidity, patients are taught to exaggerate their movements: “high effort, high intensity, high amplitude,” according to Fini. The goal is that as the disease progresses, patients will be able to move more normally.
Exercises for the voice box are typically included too, since people with Parkinson’s often think they’re speaking loudly when they’re not. Stimulating the muscles used for speech and learning to speak louder can allow Parkinson’s patients to communicate more clearly for longer.