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What does Parkinson’s, Medical Bodywork, and Staying active have in common?

One of my clients was a very active sports enthusiast, and massage therapist. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Because of his knowledge of the benefits of body work, and how important a role massage can play in managing the progression of the disease, he decided to make sure to keep up with regular massage for himself.

With over 2 decades of massage experience, he had seen the benefits of massage and bodywork first hand, and knew that staying active was going to be super important. Staying active can be really hard with the progression of the disease, and flare- ups. Massage can help those.

My client was a runner, and running can be super demanding on your body, especially your hip flexors, which are frequently greatly affected by Parkinson’s(PD). The PD can cause those hip flexors to cramp up, bend out of shape, and great tremors.

None of those are great when you’re running, because it can lead to tremors, balance issues, and then falls. Falls, and thus broken bones, are one of the biggest dangers as we age, and with Parkinson’s patients in particular.

What is Parkinson’s, and How many people does it affect?

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation,, Parkinson’s affects over a million people in the USA, and 10 million people worldwide. 60,000 people are diagnosed with the illness each week. The number of people with Parkinson’s is more than the combined number of people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig's disease (or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis).

That’s a lot of people living with this incurable disease, and a lot of people who have to live with the limitations, and symptoms (many debilitating) caused by the disease. There is no known cure, and treatments are only partially effective at taking care of the symptoms.

Symptoms of the disease:

Parkinson’s is characterized by a variety of different symptoms, both related to movement, and unrelated to movement.

Each person affected by the disease will experience slightly different symptoms. So for example while many people will experience tremor as a symptom, others may not have a tremor at all, but instead have problems with balance.

Parkinson’s can cause rigidity, trouble with balance, and movement, in addition to a very long list of non-movement symptoms.

Movement Symptoms include:

  • Cramping (dystonia): sustained or repetitive twisting or tightening of muscle.

  • Drooling (sialorrhea): while not always viewed as a motor symptom, excessive saliva or drooling may result due to a decrease in normally automatic actions such as swallowing.

  • Dyskinesia: involuntary, erratic writhing movements of the face, arms, legs or trunk.

  • Festination: short, rapid steps taken during walking. May increase risk of falling and often seen in association with freezing.

  • Freezing: gives the appearance of being stuck in place, especially when initiating a step, turning or navigating through doorways. Potentially serious problem as it may increase risk of falling.

  • Masked face (hypomimia): results from the combination of bradykinesia and rigidity.

  • Micrographia: small, untidy and cramped handwriting due to bradykinesia.

  • Shuffling gait: accompanied by short steps and often a stooped posture.

  • Soft speech (hypophonia): soft, sometimes hoarse, voice that can occur in PD.

Non-Motor symptoms include:

  • Cognitive changes: problems with attention, planning, language, memory or even dementia

  • Constipation

  • Early satiety: feeling of fullness after eating small amounts

  • Excessive sweating, often when wearing off medications

  • Fatigue

  • Increase in dandruff (seborrheic dermatitis)

  • Hallucinations and delusions

  • Lightheadedness (orthostatic hypotension): drop in blood pressure when standing

  • Loss of sense of smell or taste

  • Mood disorders, such as depression, anxiety, apathy and irritability

  • Pain

  • Sexual problems, such as erectile dysfunction

  • ​Sleep disorders, such as insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS), REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), vivid dreams, Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

  • Urinary urgency, frequency and incontinence

  • Vision problems, especially when attempting to read items up close

  • Weight loss

We see and treat a number of clients who have Parkinson’s. Currently, the options for medical treatment are limited in their efficacy, and while they can help manage some of the symptoms of the illness, they cannot stop the illness from progression.

What has been shown to slow the progression of the disease?

Studies show that staying active, mentally and physically can help patients retain more mobility and brain function. For many patients, staying mobile can be a huge challenge when faced with the symptoms they are facing.

Falls are always an ongoing risk, with loss of balance and mobility, but the need to stay mobile to protect against rigidity is incredibly important.

That is where massage can play an important role. Massage can help loosen muscles that are becoming stiff from the illness.

What are the best activities to stay active to counter Parkinson’s symptoms?

What are the best activities to stay active to counter the symptoms?

  • Some kind of gym workout with weights. Weight bearing exercise has been shown to help retain bone and muscle mass. Keeping what you have is critical to lessen the effects of aging.

  • Staying mobile in terms of walking, hikes, light jogs, (Assuming you’re not flaring up, or in advanced stages of the disease) Studies have shown that staying as mobile as possible, for as long as possible, you will retain your ability to walk, move, and run for longer.

  • Medical bodywork- Massage, Acupuncture, Physical therapy, Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, etc. These can encompass a wide variety of modalities, but all of these can help counter the progression of the disease, by helping you stay active for as long as possible. These modalities can all be both preventative, as well as rehabilitative for Parkinson’s patients.

A body in motion tends to stay in motion.

How can medical bodywork bridge the gap?

Medical bodywork helps with mobilizing the joints, and keeping them mobile- because without healthy joints, the body isn’t going to move. Once you have lost range of motion, it can be hard to get that range of motion back. Bodywork helps you retain mobility, and is particularly helpful when you can’t do it for yourself, because of muscle spasms, balance, and other mobility issues.

  • Bodywork addresses the affected areas (soft tissue rehabilitation), and those body works that are most affected. When you reduce cramps, spasms, etc, you’re rehabbing the most affected body areas, and muscle groups, so they can recover faster, and/or be more prepared for the next round with the disease.

  • Medical bodywork has both preventative and rehabilitative properties. It can help prevent flare ups, from the disease, and can also help rehabilitate the patient when they are unable to do the rehabilitation for themselves. It is effective for both acute, and chronic phases of the disease.

So, we began with a story about a patient who was in excellent shape before becoming sick with Parkinson’s. Do these therapies work for patients who are not in such stellar shape to begin with?

In short, yes! It is possible to help dramatically improve the lives of Parkinson’s (PD) patients no matter where they start in the process. We have worked with many patients who were much more sedentary, and by introducing exercise, physical therapy, and medical massage, they were able to substantially improve the quality of their lives, as well as improve mobility, function, and memory.

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