Physical therapy makes a difference for Parkinson’s sufferers

Date Published: 
December 4, 2015

Parkinson’s disease is challenging and frustrating. It takes an increasingly difficult toll on those afflicted with this erosive disease and their families. About 1 million Americans are living with the disease. To put that in perspective, more people are afflicted with Parkinson’s than muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig’s disease combined.

Each year, some 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and that doesn’t include what medical professionals believe are the thousands of cases that aren’t identified annually.

You, a loved one, or someone you know may be dealing with Parkinson’s disease or could be soon. As I always tell you, knowledge is your most important weapon, and that’s why we’re going to take a look at what you need to know and what can help with the impact of the disease on mobility and quality of life.

While the exact cause of Parkinson’s disease is not known, we do know that Parkinson’s is associated with the loss of nerve cells in the brain that are responsible for the production of dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that involves movement control. This degenerative disease gets worse over time, and it appears that a family history of Parkinson’s and aging seem to have a contributing impact on the emergence of the disease in many people.

Symptoms vary a great deal, and the severity of those symptoms can vary widely, as well. The symptoms usually include balance problems, stiffness, tremors and a slowing of movement. While some people can have a slow development of symptoms, others will experience a very quick development of symptoms and rapid decline of mobility and must cope with a dramatic impact on quality of life.

Men are 50 percent more likely to be stricken with the disease than women. While the symptoms typically start at age 60, there are exceptions. Early-onset Parkinson’s presents a real challenge for young people who may have school-aged children and are still building a career and financial resources.

The good news is people don’t die from Parkinson’s disease, and studies have shown that physical therapy can provide important help. Physical therapy isn’t a cure, because this disease is all about neurological damage, but it can help you with many of the problems that result from that damage. Physical therapy can make an important difference in assisting with such issues as balance problems, coordination issues, how you walk and weakness. It often has a positive impact on pain, too.

If you are someone you know is dealing with Parkinson’s disease, talk to your doctor about physical therapy. When you are selecting a physical therapist, you want a good fit, and you should look at their experience in treating Parkinson’s patients.

You may also want to look at whether they are certified in a program known as BIG or LSVT BIG. BIG is a groundbreaking physical and occupational therapy program that improves motor skills in people with Parkinson’s disease. This program resulted from what has been described as rigorous research that was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Two decades of research shows demonstrated improvements of motor function in Parkinson’s patients who were tested following BIG program treatment. Parkinson’s patients who complete the program are able to walk faster, can take bigger steps and have better balance. I am so convinced of the positive benefits of this program that I became certified, along with other members of my team.

Once selected, your physical therapist is going to work with you and your doctor to look at your specific issues, which is very important because Parkinson’s affects every person differently.

You can expect that your physical therapist will conduct a very thorough evaluation of your current condition, including your total medical picture. You may have other medical conditions that need to be taken into consideration in determining your treatment. Your physical therapist will likely ask a number of questions about how the disease is impacting your life and daily activities, as well.

Following a thorough evaluation that may include such factors as how you are walking, your coordination, balance, flexibility and strength, your physical therapist will develop a customized treatment plan based on your particular needs.

Understanding that Parkinson’s can make the simplest daily activity very difficult, the goal of your physical therapy is to help you remain as independent and active as possible. In addition to working with you on such needs as improving your strength and flexibility, your physical therapist will work with you on strategies to address challenges that you have shared are a problem for you.

You may need strategies to get in and out of a chair or bed. Maybe you need help with walking coordination or hand movements. Climbing stairs or walking off a curb may present a difficult challenge. Don’t be surprised if your physical therapist talks to you about the benefit of a cane or a walker. For some people, these can bring welcome assistance.

Your physical therapist may also talk to you about steps you can take to change your home environment to make you safer. Helping you avoid falling and assisting you with approaches to allow you to continue to participate in activities that matter to you are all part of what should be a personalized approach to your treatment needs.

Michael J. Fox is one of the most prominent “faces” of Parkinson’s disease.

He once said, “I often say now I don’t have any choice whether or not I have Parkinson’s, but surrounding that non-choice is a million other choices that I can make.” Those simple words carry a powerful thought. There’s no question a person diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease has been dealt a tough hand. The real question is whether you want to let it change who you are and take over your life, or are you going to be proactive and go after the help you need to get the most out of life you can?

Once again, I find myself talking about quality of life, and I won’t stop talking about it. I am going to stay on my soap box because I want you to have the best each day can bring.

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.