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Parkinson's Disease

Contributed by Marianne Shaughnessy

woman in physical therapy

Parkinson's Disease and Parkinson-like disorders are common, affecting about 1.5 million Americans. Parkinson's Disease is a disorder in which nerve cells (neurons) in the brain stop making dopamine. Dopamine helps brain cells communicate with each other to organize movement.

The signs of Parkinson's Disease include:

  • trembling (tremors) of the hands, arms, legs, jaw or face

  • stiffness (rigidity) of the arms legs and body

  • slowness of movement (bradykinesia)

  • impaired balance and coordination

group yoga

These symptoms generally get worse over time. They may eventually limit the ability to perform daily activities. At this time, there is no known cause or cure although some rare forms may be inherited. It is a chronic and progressive disease. The disease is more common in men and the likelihood of developing Parkinson's increases with age.

The recommended therapies are medication and exercise. Medication can either replace the dopamine no longer made in the brain, or help the brain use the existing dopamine more effectively. There are some surgical procedures that can be done to relieve symptoms, as well. It is important to consult with specialized doctors to learn the best therapies.

Exercise therapies are now emerging as an exciting and effective new way to deal with this disease. Researchers are exploring different types of exercises that work best. It is already clear that starting an exercise program early after diagnosis may help better manage symptoms. Exercise may help to keep muscles moving and joints from becoming stiff. Parkinson's is a disease that makes it difficult to coordinate movement, so it is important to keep moving as much as possible. This may include walking or some forms of yoga. The health care team will be able to provide guidance on approved exercises. In addition to regular exercise, physical therapy may be beneficial. A physical therapist can teach safe ways to move and exercise while at home.

woman in physical therapy

As the disease progresses, it may become harder for the brain and the muscles to communicate. This can result in "freezing," making moving difficult. Medications may be used to help prevent "freezing." It is important to work with a neurologist to find the best medications and know what time of day to take them. By doing so, this may help one to function best during waking hours.

No matter what exercise program is approved, it is important to get started and stay moving! It may make a big difference in how one feels and functions from day to day.

Active Learning

Parkinson's Disease

Read More

Suggested Education - Provides links to basic information about Parkinson's

Exercise & Physical Activity - This guide is the centerpiece of Go4Life, a national campaign to help you fit exercise and physical activity into your daily life

Life and Death of a Neuron - Explains what a neuron is and its life cycle

Anatomy of the Brain - Provides information about the different parts of the brain and how each functions

VA Parkinson's Disease Research, Education and Clinical Center - In 2001, the Department of Veterans' Affairs established the Parkinson's Disease Research, Education and Clinical Center (PADRECCs) Network. Each of the six PADRECCs is designed to deliver state-of-the-art clinical care, innovative research, outreach and education programs to Veterans with PD and their families in its service area.

Exercise Helpline - The American Parkinson's Disease Association has partnered with Boston University to establish an Exercise Helpline for patients with PD, to provide a place to call and speak with a licensed physical therapist that can answer questions about exercise, provide information about programs in the caller's area and provide educational materials.

Advanced Reading

Parkinson's Disease Foundation - Provides tips for exercise and promotes dance programs, including one that adds elements of yoga to improve the health and well-being of people with PD.

Article Resources

Goodwin, V.A., Richards, S.H., Taylor, R.S., Taylor, A.H. & Campbell, J.L. The Effectiveness of Exercise Interventions for people with Parkinson's Disease: A Systematic review and Meta-Analysis. Movement Disorders, 2008, 23:5, 631-640.

Updated April 1, 2011