Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative central nervous system disorder that impacts nearly 100,000 Canadians - and approximately 11,000 British Columbians. 5,500 new cases are diagnosed across the country each year, and those numbers are expected to double by 2016.
Parkinson’s is caused by the unexplained and spontaneous death of certain nerve cells in the brain’s basal ganglia region. These cells are responsible for producing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which allows impulses to travel smoothly from one nerve cell to another, facilitating fluid muscle movement. When dopamine levels fall below 50%, the physical symptoms of Parkinson's begin to appear, including:
• Impaired balance and difficulty walking
• Loss of volume and clarity of speech
• Difficulty with handwriting
• Loss of automatic movements (blinking, swinging arms when walking, gesturing when talking, etc)
Although we have not yet developed a cure for Parkinson’s, massage therapy has proven useful as a complementary treatment alongside medication, speech and physical therapy, and in some cases surgery. Drawing on techniques foundational to massage therapy training, RMTs develop customized treatment plans to help patients with Parkinson’s improve movement and function, while reducing anxiety.
The muscles of Parkinson’s patients are subjected to continuous trembling and contraction, with virtually no opportunity to rest, relax, and recover. Under these extreme conditions, there is not enough naturally circulating oxygen to help rejuvenate the muscles, leading to loss of joint function and range of motion. Reduced mobility and deteriorating muscle control typically lead to a stooped posture, and patients may often find themselves “frozen” in the middle of an action, unable to summon the range of motion necessary to see it through.
In order to help break the cycle of muscle contraction and joint stiffness, RMTs typically apply the long, gentle strokes of Swedish massage. Administered regularly, Swedish massage is an effective precursor to range of motion (ROM) exercises, alleviating tension in order to facilitate movement. Massage courses and practicum experiences teach students to listen to and communicate with patients who may have a reduced capacity for verbal communication. When working with speech-impaired Parkinson’s patients, RMTs are watchful for signs of pain, and will take care to fully relax contracted muscles before moving ahead with ROM techniques. Full body Swedish massage coupled with ROM can help patients with Parkinson’s recover a measure of mobility and control, easing daily activities and improving overall quality of life.
In addition to challenges related to muscle control and mobility, Parkinson’s patients are often afflicted with depression, sleeplessness and digestive dysfunction. Gentle techniques such as Swedish massage and lymphatic drainage help to improve circulation, reduce cortisol levels, and facilitate the removal of toxins - paving the way to a better night’s sleep, improved digestion, and a greater sense of emotional wellbeing. For Parkinson’s patients who suffer from chronic constipation, gentle abdominal massage may also prove useful in eliminating obstructions and accompanying discomfort.
In 2002, the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami collaborated with Duke University researchers to study the effects of massage therapy on a group of patients with Parkinson’s disease. After receiving two thirty minute massages a week, patients reported improvements in sleep and daily functioning, while researchers noted a sustained reduction in stress-hormone levels. This is inspiring evidence both for students pursuing massage therapy education and Parkinson’s patients in search of non-invasive therapeutic solutions.
Do you know of other massage therapy techniques that are helpful to patients with Parkinson’s Disease?