ABOUT PARKINSON'S DISEASE
"PD is both chronic, meaning it persists over a long period of time, and progressive, meaning its symptoms grow worse over time. Although some people become severely disabled, others experience only minor motor disruptions. Tremor is the major symptom for some individuals, while for others tremor is only a minor complaint and other symptoms are more troublesome. It is currently not possible to predict which symptoms will affect an individual, and the intensity of the symptoms vary from person to person." NIH National Institute of Neuroplogical Disorders and Stroke.
1.5 million Americans are affected, approximately 1-2% of people over the age of 60 and 3-5% of those over 85. Onset before 40 is rare. All races and ethnic groups are affected.
At present, there is no cure for PD but there are a number of new approaches that have provided some relief of symptoms including medications, deep brain stimulation (DBS) and novel fitness and dance programs. Classes in subjects as diverse as weight lifting, boxing and modern dance are now offered specifically for those with PD. These are wonderful resources offering excellent results and I encourage anyone with PD to try them. However, my own exercise suggestions are the basis of this article.
The exercise methods developed for Building Better Balance offer techniques that help to reduce symptoms of Parkinson's. (See the link below for the specific recommended exercises.)
- Strengthen internal focus using the eyes (to reduce involuntary motion): Strengthen eye focus to improve concentration. Eye focus in particular turns out to be a key element in reducing PD symptoms and is especially helpful in controlling head tremor.
- Stretch the rib cage (to decrease rigidity in the upper torso): As we get older, we tend to get stiff for a number of reasons but PD causes additional muscle tension in particular in the upper body. PD is in effect associated with tension and stress. Therefore other therapies effective in those areas can be helpful with PD including the study of deep breathing techniques.
- Improve nervous system health (overall and in particular to assist with slowness of movement): Nervous system health can be enhanced and improved using many different techniques. For example, eye/hand/foot coordination exercises using rhythm can be designed to help those with slowness of movement. Any improvement to the health of the nervous system overall helps those with nerve impairment including those with PD.
- Improve balance skills and learn keys to not having falls (to counteract postural instability): Balance exercise is valuable not only because of PD issues. A regular balance program practiced on a consistent basis reduces falls exponentially. Skills well worth developing no matter what.
- Reduce inflammation (to reduce PD risks and symptoms overall): "There is increasing evidence that suggests chronic inflammation is a trigger to a number of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease..." Yong Hwan Kim of the Charles Center.
- Address depression and anxiety: The aging process itself is daunting partly because chronic conditions that crop up that cannot improve are just plain depressing. This is especially true for those with PD as it is a degenerative illness. The very best way to deal with depression is to move. The very best thing to do if you are anxious is to focus. The most important action to take if you are afraid is to breathe. These feelings by themselves have a derogatory effect on symptoms. Any action we take to relieve them is helpful for our overall health and the PD in particular.
In general, practice is the friend of nervous system health. Repetitive, simple, rhythmic motion is very helpful. With PD however, distraction is hallmark and concentration can be difficult. In my own teaching experience, inability to focus is at the core of many PD symptoms.
A real Parkinson's success story: One gentleman with PD showed remarkable progress after regular Building Better Balance class attendance over a 4-month period. Head movement diminished significantly and his balance improved so much that he no longer had falls and no longer needed the use of a walker. Success can be attributed to the emphasis throughout this program on using eye focus to control balance (and head motion).
Rarely in life do we sustain eye to eye contact for more than a few seconds at most. I spent as much time as possible, while doing balance exercise, in sustained eye contact with Michael. In addition, using the eyes to steady balance is taught throughout Building Better Balance. The results proved to be extraordinary. He began the semester needing a walker and head helmet because he fell so much. He ended the 4 month series requiring neither, he learned to control the motion of his head and he also stopped having falls.
Extended eye contact helps in training the nervous system in the development of more effective nerve pathways. We can create new nervous system pathways whenever we want. Consistency and practice are usually all that is required. This is the essence for instance of learning to play a musical instrument. Eventually after much practice, strong and reliable nerve cell paths are created, resulting in excellent performance. Creating new and effective nerve cell paths using imagery is currently in favor in the sports community. This is not new. Another way to say this is that we are what we think about. If we are constantly thinking of distress, we become distressed. If we constantly practice a dance in our head, our dance performance benefits. In the case of Parkinson's what we want to constantly practice is the art of internal focus. The eyes are extremely helpful in this endeavor.
Parkinson's Disease and Structured Meditation:
As eye focus is so helpful with PD, it makes perfect sense that meditation would be too. From John Coleman ND as quoted in TheParkinsonHub: "In 1995, I developed symptoms of advanced Parkinson's disease with severe tremor, festinating walk, unintelligible speech, mask-like facial expression, significant pain, constipation and urinary incontinence. During my three year journey to a symptom-free state, I utilised a number of self-help strategies and complementary remedies. Prime among my activities was daily meditation, and involvement in a weekly meditation group. I observed that, while meditating, many of my symptoms reduced in intensity and, over time, this intensity reduction lasted for some time after meditating. Other benefits I noticed were improved sleep patterns, clearer thought processes and, interestingly, improved relationships with work colleagues. If I missed my daily meditation for any reason, I found I was less able to make decisions, my tremor increased, and I felt generally less well."
These kinds of benefits are not permanent just as these suggestions may not work for everyone. Understand that the essence of practice is that you keep on doing it. As soon as you stop benefits reduce.
Eye focus is taught throughout the Building Better Balance series of DVD classes. It is an essential tool in reducing falls and increasing stability. The first of the series, Balance Basics, contains a special feature on how to improve eye focus, highly recommended viewing for everybody.