With Sarasota Memorial Speech Pathologist Alyssa Cook, MS, CCC-SLP, MPSImP, MDTP
Nearly 1 million people in the U.S. are living with Parkinson's disease. And nearly 90,000 people in the U.S. will be told they have the disease each year. A neurodegenerative disorder that affects movement, speech, swallowing, and balance, there is no cure for Parkinson's, though medication can do much to control symptoms. And more and more, healthcare experts are prescribing a proactive approach to fighting the disease, using specialized speech and physical therapy to forestall symptoms and allow patients to continue living their lives.
“If you’re diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, it’s always a good idea to be evaluated by a physical therapist or speech therapist,” says Sarasota Memorial Speech Pathologist Alyssa Cook. “We can take a proactive approach and work on therapeutic exercises to prevent progression.”
Why Therapy Works
While Parkinson’s disease presents as loss of muscle control or muscle weakness, the disease is not actually targeting the muscles themselves or the part of the brain that allows them to move. Rather, a loss of dopamine (a neurotransmitter) affects the function of the basal ganglia (a section of the brain affecting motor control) and results in disruption of automatic function. "And that's everything we learned to do in infancy," says Cook, like swallowing, walking, balancing and speaking. "Things that we practiced and learned and never had to think about again, >em>until something goes wrong with the automatic system within the brain."
But because the muscles themselves and the motor neurons controlling them are not actually damaged, targeted therapy can help patients with Parkinson's disease to relearn these movements and activities by taking conscious control over what was previously second nature. "We can actually bypass that automatic system," says Cook, "and use the intentional system to make those actions work."
“And with preventative therapy, you can reverse effects for a long period of time.”
How Therapy Works
When Parkinson's disease disrupts automatic function, some of the most common areas or activities affected are speech, swallowing, balance and walking. With specialized therapy and targeted exercises, people living with Parkinson's learn to retrain and strengthen the muscles involved, reducing and even reversing symptoms.
- Swallow Therapy: Difficulties swallowing can be a dangerous symptom of Parkinson’s, possibly leading to choking and/or aspiration. But a trained therapist can examine a patient’s swallow and help identify any problems that need to be addressed, as well as prescribing exercises to retrain those muscles.
- Speech Therapy: A common symptom of Parkinson’s disease is loss of volume in the voice, as is difficulty with pronunciation. While not directly life-threatening, this can have a drastic impact on quality of life. However, exercises ranging from deep breathing to laryngeal push-ups help retrain the diaphragm and related muscles.
- Physical Therapy: Loss of balance and increased risk of fall is a serious symptom of Parkinson’s disease, and one that can lead to injuries that progress symptoms. This is why preventative therapy to maintain balance and mobility is crucial before symptoms even begin. Exercises emphasizing strength training, stretching, balance and making big movements all go a long way toward forestalling those problems.
- Occupational Therapy: Loss of motor function can make lots of everyday activities challenging. An occupational therapist helps patients relearn how to do all those little things that mean so much, like dressing yourself and buttoning your own shirt.
"These muscles weaken because they're not being used to their full potential," Cook says. "But we can target multiple facets of the disease through therapy."
Resources Near You
For information on Sarasota Memorial’s Parkinson’s Disease Clinic, click here.
For information on the support groups, exercise classes, and educational opportunities offered by the Sarasota-based Neuro Challenge Foundation for Parkinson’s, click here.
For information on resources offered by the national Parkinson’s Foundation, click here.
Written by Sarasota Memorial copywriter Philip Lederer, MA, who crafts a variety of external communications for the healthcare system. SMH's in-house wordsmith, Lederer earned his Master's degree in Public Administration and Political Philosophy from Morehead State University, KY.