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Small Steps Can Mean Giant Leaps for Parkinson's Patients


WebMD Health News

Oct. 4, 2000 -- While scientists search for a cure for Parkinson's disease, millions of people who have the disease, including 73-year-old Californian Milt Jones, are learning how to live with it and the limitations it can place on their bodies and lives.

A disorder of the nervous system that affects between 1 million and 1.5 million Americans -- including boxer Muhammad Ali, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, and actor Michael J. Fox -- Parkinson's disease is characterized by a tremor or trembling in the hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face; stiffness of the limbs and trunk; slowness of movement; and impaired balance and coordination. As these symptoms become more pronounced, patients may have difficulty walking, talking, or completing other simple tasks such as buttoning a shirt.

Diagnosed with the disease three years ago, Jones tells WebMD that instability, stiffness, and speech and swallowing difficulties have hindered his quality of life to some degree.

He tries to exercise a little bit each day to ease the stiffness and instability. "I went to a speech therapist to help with speech and swallowing, and it's a matter of trying to enunciate more clearly and look in the mirror to form my words," he says.

"[Parkinson's] will limit you to some degree, but these limits are minimal if you work to minimize them," he says. "My quality of life has not changed a great deal. It just takes longer to do things and I wear more pullover shirts than button-down shirts," he says, also adding that he has become a fan of Velcro.

Jones has the right idea when it comes to exercise, according to James Tetrud, MD, medical director of the Parkinson's Institute in Sunnyvale, Calif.

"My approach is to encourage patients to engage in physical exercise that they enjoy during a time that they set aside each day," he tells WebMD. "One of the reasons that exercise is so important is because the disease itself affects movement, so there is a tendency not to move as much [and] lack of movement results in a tightening of muscles, so when [patients] have to exert themselves, they may be injured much easier."

Marilyn Basham, a clinical physical therapist at the Parkinson's Institute, runs walking and balance classes for patients and their families or caregivers. "We do a lot of stretching and walking exercises which will hopefully prevent falls. Falls are the biggest problem with [Parkinson's] patients," she says.

"The more we can emphasize balance and balance strategies, the better off [Parkinson's] patients will be," she says.

There's more. A study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that music makes a difference. Compared to those getting standard physical therapy, those patients who listened to music, created it on instruments, and moved to it rhythmically had fewer problems with common tasks and were less likely to fall or experience the sudden freezing up of muscles that is a hallmark of the disease. The rhythm of music may somehow help patients initiate movement, the study authors suggest.

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