When it comes to managing chronic diseases like Parkinson’s, medicine can go a long way to mitigate debilitating symptoms and potentially slow progression of the disease. However, there is much to be said for the medicine-free steps people with Parkinson’s and their caregivers can take to help manage symptoms, as well.
What Is Parkinson’s Disease?
A mysterious disorder of the central nervous system and brain, Parkinson’s disease results from a disruption in the dopamine production in the brain. As a neurotransmitter, dopamine plays an important role in helping nerve cells (neurons) communicate through special channels (synapses) in the brain to control bodily functions like movement. The substantia nigra region of the brain houses nerve cells responsible for producing dopamine. For reasons still unknown, in people with Parkinson’s, these dopamine-producing cells become damaged and die off.
The result? Progressively worse movement-related dysfunction.
Tremors – Involuntary tremors while at rest typically begin on one side of the body, most often the hand. They often subside when limb movement is initiated.
Slowed movements – Also referred to as bradykinesia, a slowing of movements results in mobility issues and loss of autonomic functions like blinking and smiling.
Muscle rigidity – A stiffening of the muscles and joints leads to contracture and degenerative changes in posture and flexibility.
Balance problems – Contracture combined with slowed movements and tremors increase risk for imbalance and falling.
Additional symptoms may sound and look like a reduction in speech volume, cramped writing, impaired dexterity, continence problems, mood changes, hallucinations, loss of smell, trouble sleeping, freezing in one place, shuffling feet, not swinging arms at the side when walking, and excessive sweating.
Managing Parkinson’s Symptoms
Naturally, the progression of these types of symptoms can quickly affect daily living and mobility, and make it difficult for someone with Parkinson’s to reliably function on their own, even with pharmacological treatment.
That said, there are a handful of ways in which people with Parkinson’s and their caregivers can help manage symptoms at home.
You may be surprised by the sheer amount of helpful tools and equipment which can simplify daily tasks for people with Parkinson’s and give them a newfound sense of self-reliance. For example, did you know that flatware exists that is specially engineered to counteract tremors when eating? This helps prevent spills and makes it easier to feed oneself.
The best spoons for Parkinson’s, for example, offer wide handles for easier holding, are light-weight, and include motion-sensing technology that learns from and adapts to a person’s specific grip and tremors.
Additional tools such as bedside commodes can make handling continence issues less frustrating, while dressing aids (button hooks, shoe horns, dressing sticks) can make putting on and taking off clothing each day easier and less time-consuming.
Have you seen the video where a nurse illustrates how to boost walking and movement abilities with her patient who has Parkinson’s? Her trick . . . play music. A growing body of evidence has shown the effects music therapy has on gait training when it comes to Parkinson’s disease. Researchers believe that auditory rhythm as heard through the beat of a song helps the brain to reorganize and enhance connections between the auditory and motor systems.
The influence of rhythm on the kinetic systems helps boost Parkinson’s patients’ movement synchronization, coordination, balance, postural control, and gait (frequency, step length, and speed). Music can also have emotional effects and help to boost mood or lift spirits, which is a major plus as people with Parkinson’s often tend to experience anxiety or depression, as well.
Freezing Episode Tips and Tricks
Unfortunately, no amount of medicine can “treat” a freezing episode when someone with Parkinson’s is in the midst of one. What exactly is a freezing episode? Exactly what it sounds like. Oftentimes, as the disease progresses, it will lead to episodes where a person with Parkinson’s will be walking or eating, for example, and then completely freeze and be unable to move forward, swallow, speak, etc.
Researchers do not know exactly what causes freezing episodes, but the National Parkinson’s Foundation shares helpful tips and tricks for overcoming them, including:
Play music, hum, or sing a song, preferably with a strong beat.
March in place.
Place a line on the floor using a laser pointer, pencil, tape, etc. This cues the brain to “walk over” it, thus moving forward.
Move in a different direction, i.e. side to side or backward.
Try to relieve stressful triggers that could be contributing to the episode.
All in all, physical exercise will also play an important role in naturally managing Parkinson’s symptoms. Low-impact fitness activities like hiking, yoga, dancing, swimming, and walking all help to maintain bone and muscle strength, as well as to hone coordination skills, improve flexibility, and fortify brain cells against damage.