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How Physical Therapy May Help Control Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms

If you or a loved one has Parkinson’s disease, you know how it can make it tough to function. The disease can cause tremors, stiffness and balance issues and can make your movements slow. Working with a physical therapist can help manage these symptoms. That way, you can do more of the things you need to do in life.

Physical therapy is a type of care that may help you move better, function as well as possible and live on your own if you have Parkinson’s disease. 

“Exercise and physical therapy can help reduce all the major motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, increase your ability to function and improve your quality of life,” said Taite Lipchak, an exercise physiologist with Banner Health.

While some medications can also help with symptoms, physical therapy is the only proven treatment that improves balance. Vigorous exercise may help protect your brain and change the course of the disease, while medications only treat the symptoms. 

How physical therapy can make a difference 

When you work with a physical therapist, you’ll perform different exercises and stretches. They can help you:  

  • Improve your mobility by making you less stiff and rigid and reducing the trouble you have with movement.
  • Enhance your balance and reduce your risk of falls.
  • Increase your flexibility so it’s easier to move your joints.
  • Improve your quality of life by helping you feel more confident and independent.

Your physical therapist will work with you to create a treatment plan that addresses your needs, symptoms, challenges and goals. Your plan may include:

  • Aerobic exercises to keep your heart and lungs strong and build your endurance. The Parkinson’s Foundation suggests 30 minutes of movement three days a week. Your physical therapist may include big movements (like high steps and arm swings) to help train your muscles. They may also have you do side-to-side or left-to-right activities to offset problems with these movements.
  • Strength training to build or maintain muscles. Aim for 30 minutes two to three days a week, focusing on resistance, speed or power in your major muscle groups. Your therapist may have you work with light dumbbells or a resistance band, or exercise in a pool.
  • Balance and agility training to challenge and improve your balance. Performing these exercises daily is ideal. If that’s not possible, try for two to three days per week.
  • Gait (walking) training to help you walk more confidently, as often as needed, based on how much trouble you have walking.
  • Stretching and flexibility to maintain your range of motion. Try to stretch every day. If that doesn’t work for you, aim for two to three days per week. Stretching the hips, hamstrings and calves is important for people with Parkinson’s disease.

“These are the most effective exercises at reducing how severe Parkinson’s disease is,” Lipchak said. To get the most benefits from them, they should be challenging and varied, and you should use both your brain and your body when you are doing them.

How to get the most from your treatment 

When you work with a physical therapist, it’s important to be consistent. Regular sessions may help you slowly improve your abilities and overall well-being. Your therapist will probably give you exercises to do at home on your own as well. You’ll get the best results if you take an active role in your therapy and work your exercises and movements into your daily routines.

You’ll also want to take the medications you need to help control your symptoms. When your medication is working properly, you can exercise more intensely and benefit more from your physical therapy. “A physical therapist can help you customize or modify your exercises to train as safely and effectively as possible,” Lipchak said.

Of course, it takes more than just physical therapy to manage Parkinson’s disease symptoms. Your care team will also most likely include neurologists, speech therapists and occupational therapists to provide all of the care you need. 

“Many people do not realize that Parkinson’s disease does not only cause symptoms such as tremors, slow movement and a shuffling gait,” Lipchak said. You may also have anxiety, depression, fatigue, problems with thinking, constipation, blood pressure changes and sexual dysfunction. You’ll need expert care, medication and physical therapy to help manage these symptoms.

The bottom line

If you have Parkinson’s disease, you probably struggle with tremors, stiffness, balance issues and slow movements. Working with a physical therapist may help reduce these symptoms. A physical therapist can create a treatment plan for you. Your plan may include aerobic exercise, strength training, balance training, gait training, stretching and flexibility. With that mix, you’ll be able to feel more confident and stay as independent as possible. 

A health care provider can come up with the best approach to meet your needs. If you would like to connect with an expert to learn more about how physical therapy can help with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, reach out to Banner Health.

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