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Parkinson's Disease Health Center

Physical Therapy Could Help Parkinson's Patients

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May 25, 2001 -- What can be done for those with Parkinson's disease, a devastating neurological condition? Research to date suggests that exercise or physical therapy, when combined with medication, may help some people control their symptoms, at least for a while.

Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurological condition that usually, but not always, affects older individuals -- think of actor Michael J. Fox, who developed the disease in his 30s. In Parkinson's, the part of the brain responsible for movement starts to break down. Symptoms include difficulty initiating movement, uncontrollable tremors, stiffness, and problems with balance and walking.

Currently, about one and a half million Americans have Parkinson's disease, but these numbers are expected to increase along with the average age of the U.S. population. While medications are available to help deal with symptoms of Parkinson's, there is currently no cure.

Physical therapy or physiotherapy is a common approach to many conditions that affect the ability of the body to move and function normally. It typically involves performing specific exercises under the guidance of a physical therapist. Many experts believe that physical therapy can help people with Parkinson's disease by improving balance, muscle tone, and ability to move. The true benefits of physical therapy for Parkinson's disease are not clear, however, since few appropriate studies have been done to test its benefit.

To try to shed light on the issue, a Dutch group of researchers have looked at all the best studies to date on physical therapy and Parkinson's disease. They analyzed the results of 12 studies on this topic published between 1966 and 1999 and found that physical therapy does appear to offer people with Parkinson's disease a small benefit.

Two of these researchers, Cees J. T. de Goede, MSc, and Gert Kwakkel, PhD, told WebMD via an email message that, "Physical therapy is a good adjunct to medical treatment [for people with Parkinson's]. ... Patients with Parkinson's disease do benefit from a physical therapy training program when applied on a regular basis (i.e., about 1-3 times a week). ... However, the [optimal] amount and content of physical therapy needs further investigation."

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