What is Parkinson’s?

The Parkinson’s Foundation defines Parkinson’s Disease as “a neurodegenerative disorder that affects predominantly dopamine-producing (dopaminergic) neurons in a specific area of the brain called substantia nigra.” The substantia nigra is the central area of the mid-brain and contains most of the brains dopamine neurotransmitters as well as the basal ganglia (messengers) in charge of motor control. While it still is not clear as to why, in Parkinson’s, the dopamine neurotransmitters begin to die, and motor control is affected.

Who is affected?

There are an estimated 7-10 million people worldwide affected by Parkinson’s Disease. It is most often diagnosed in people aged 50 and up, and men are one and a half times more likely than women to be diagnosed. Not much is known about who will or will not get it, but 1 in 10 cases are related to changes in genes and 1 in 100 cases are due to familial history and passed on genes. Some research has shown that people exposed to Agent Orange have a higher likelihood of developing Parkinson’s. 

Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms of Parkinson’s are progressive and may even go unnoticed in earlier stages. Typically, some of the earlier signs include reduced facial expression and lack of arm-swinging when walking. Your speech may become slurred. As the disease progresses, symptoms may include a resting tremor, muscle rigidity, a flexed, unrelaxed posture, foot shuffling or gait abnormalities, decreased balance and length in stride, freezing in facial expressions or body position, festination (flexed, rigid knees and hips while walking), and changes in handwriting, especially micrographia (small, cramped writing”).

3 Evidence-based and Creative Exercises

  1. Tai-Chi
    • Originally created as a Chinese fighting style, Tai-Chi has become a great way to exercise. It utilizes breathing, visualization, and movements to work the entire body all at once. It’s low impact and intensity make it great for people who have difficulty with traditional or more intense forms of exercise.
    • Tai-Chi is a safe, side-effect free treatment option for people with Parkinson’s. At just a frequency of twice per week, men with mild to moderate Parkinson’s showed an increase in strength and balance after a six-month period. They also showed a slow-down in overall motor control loss as the disease progressed and had a reduced frequency of falls.
  2. Dance
    • It has become a well-known fact that regular exercise can help regain some balance and motor control in Parkinson’s patients, but dance is a relatively new alternative exercise. Some specific dances like the Argentine tango focus on keeping the trunk centered over the supporting foot while extending their alternate foot behind them. Coupled with the music as an external cue for movement, dance enables patients to focus on their motor control and balance, as well as strength and flexibility. Like Tai-Chi, dance works the entire body, and is a great way to get out and enjoy a little social time. 
  3. Rock Steady Boxing
    • Rock Steady Boxing was founded in 2006 specifically for people with Parkinson’s Disease. It takes elements from real boxing drills and incorporates them into a fun, no-contact version of the sport. Classes are tailored to everyone’s current fitness level and are a useful way for anyone with any stage of Parkinson’s to regain their quality of life and literally fight their disease.
    • Parkinson’s patients lose many physical elements which boxers strive to improve. By taking these specifically-designed boxing classes, patients will improve their agility, strength, balance, and hand-eye coordination. 

How can exercise and PT help with Parkinson’s Disease?

  • Increase ROM
    • Physical Therapy and exercise are great ways to improve range of motion (ROM) in people with and without Parkinson’s. For Parkinson’s patients, a relaxing of contracted muscles and frozen joints with proper PT will bring forth an increased ROM, enabling them to continue with more exercises to further improve their quality of life.
  • Increase strength
    • Dancing, boxing, and Tai-Chi alike will all help people with Parkinson’s to increase their physical strength. In doing so, they will regain some of their motor control.
  • Improve balance
    • Improving balance is huge when it comes to safety. With improved balance comes a reduction in falls and injuries. By moving and training the body, especially in dance and Tai-Chi, people with Parkinson’s can improve their balance and increases their safety.
  • Improve gait pattern
    • By increasing ROM, strength, and balance, Parkinson’s patients will inevitably improve their gait pattern. A reduction in shuffling feet and festination is seen in those who regularly partake in some form of exercise or PT. The improved gait pattern reduces the chance of falls and injuries and greatly increases the quality of life. 

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