Treating Parkinson’s Disease with Physical Therapy

Parkinson’s disease (PD) affects as many as 1 million Americans and an estimated 10 million people worldwide.1 A recent study found that approximately 50,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.2 PD is recognized as the second most common neurodegenerative disease just behind Alzheimer’s disease.3 It has affected a number of noteworthy individuals such as U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, Michael J. Fox, and Muhamad Ali. As such its impact on the American public has been significant.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

As a progressive disorder of the nervous system, Parkinson’s disease affects the nervous system that affects movement. The loss of motor function has to do with the loss of dopamine producing brain cells. Typically, PD will manifest itself as a trembling of the limbs and head while at rest. Stiffness, impaired balance, and slowness are also common symptoms. As the disease progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to complete simple tasks such as walking and talking.

The severity of the impact of PD can vary widely from person to person. Many individuals can lead long and fulfilling lives with Parkinson’s having a minimal impact on their lives. These individuals most often have comprehensive medical care to thank for the lessening of PD’s often considerable degenerative effects.

Stages of Parkinson’s Disease

Stage 1: Seen as the mildest of the stages. PD at this stage only affects one side of the body with rigidity, slowness, and tremors.

Stage 2: Both sides of the body are affected plus there is a mild impairment of balance.

Stage 3: A significant turning point. With an increased loss of balance and a greater deterioration of reflexes, the patient will begin to experience more frequent falls. 

Stage 4: The patient at this point requires assistance with walking. Often an assistive device is used. This stage is often the point where assisted living is necessary.

Stage 5: Stiffness and impaired balance make it incredibly difficult or impossible for the patient to walk and in most cases, stand. A wheelchair is common at stage.

How Physical Therapy Can Help

A physical therapist can easily be one of the greatest assets a sufferer of PD can have. While the disease may proliferate and affect the independence of the patient, the physical therapist is there to help combat the individual’s symptoms and provide alternative solutions to otherwise impaired movements. As an adaptive course of correction, the physical therapy treatment is tailored to every patient’s needs and circumstances in order to provide the greatest quality of life experience available.  

Amplitude Training

Techniques involving increased amplitude (LSVT Big) of body movement and limbs has been shown to improve amplitude and thus improve the movement speed of limbs, balance, and general quality of life. The improvements gained from utilizing these techniques were shown to have lasting effects.  

Reciprocal Patterns

Side-to-side and left-to-right patterns are known reciprocal movements. PD can have a range of deteriorating effects on these movements. Techniques, such as cycling, involving balance and preparatory adjustments to the body can have beneficial effects on the day-to-day activities of patients.

Balance Work

A physical therapist that works with people living with Parkinson’s can make substantial improvements to a patient’s system of balance. Often PD can have adverse effects on the system of balance which is a combination of vision, the inner ear, and feedback from touching the ground. Gait training can make marked improvements to these systems.

Stretching and Flexibility

PD can significantly reduce flexibility and range of motion. A physical therapist working with a Parkinson’s patient will often utilize a great number of techniques seeking to both restore and maintain the patient’s previous flexibility. Depending the severity of the patient’s state these techniques at times can help to maintain the patients’ physical independence.

Strength Training

The deteriorating effects of PD on the muscular strength of a patient often result from the patient’s increasing lack of physical movement. Upon helping to restore a basic level of mobility, a physical therapist can help to restore physical strength as well. Further helping the patient regain their ability to be self-sufficient.