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Rehabilitation Therapies for Parkinson's Disease

Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease (PD) may interfere with people's ability to function effectively on a daily basis. Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, and Speech and Language Pathology are health disciplines that help people to prevent problems from occurring and to treat difficulties people are having. They can offer you strategies to improve your function or adapt to changes that are imposed by Parkinson's symptoms. Family members can also be involved in learning techniques to make life easier. Typically, a referral by a physician is needed in order to have these services covered by health insurance. It is also necessary to see under what circumstances your health plan provides coverage.

Communication Impairment in PD: Speech and Language Pathology

Speech, language, voice and swallowing disorders are common problems in patient's with moderate to significant PD. Very often the first sign of significant PD is reduced voice power and increased rate of utterance. As the duration of PD increases communication impairment also becomes more complex. Additional communication problems may include poor precision and strength of speech sound pronunciation and reductions in expressive language complexity. Further some patients will experience slowing of mental functioning and memory loss that will also impact language formulation and expression. If these communication impairments become dominant in everyday activities then the patient will begin to withdraw from necessary daily communication activities . Patients may decide to refrain from answering the phone or initiating telephone calls or maintaining conversations. This communication disability can seriously isolate patients and make it difficult for them to function in their families and with caregivers.

The speech and voice communication impairment symptoms in PD are identified by speech-language pathologists as a stereotypic cluster identified as "hypokinetic dysarthria". In general, PD patients will eventually exhibit:

  • Weak and diminishing voice power.
  • Sudden increased rate of utterance.
  • Reduced range of motion of the speech gesture.
  • Monotone and monoloud speech intonation.
  • Poor initiation in speech utterance.
  • Stuttering-like fluency symptoms.

These symptoms of communication impairment can be treated by speech-language pathologists to provide exercises that will allow the patient to reduce the negative effects on overall speech intelligibility. PD patients can improve their communication with treatment, practice and a willingness to work hard to compensate for the neuromuscular impairment in PD.

Swallowing disorders in PD can be significant and should also be evaluated and treated by speech-language pathologists. Because the neuromuscular deficits in PD also affect the muscles of swallowing, patient precautions, x-ray evaluation procedures and treatment may be necessary. Patients may experience difficulty in chewing certain foods sufficiently, choking on liquids or poor passage of food into the esophagus. These swallowing difficulties can also be remedied with exercises and diet recommendations provided by the speech-language pathologist.

Finally, the possible reduction in mental functioning in PD patients has become an increasing concern. These cognitive difficulties include slowing of mental response, short-term memory limitations, slowing word retrieval, time and space disorientation, reductions in expressive language complexity and length, and diminished emotional affect. These problems should also be addressed by the speech-language pathologist in concert with social workers and caregivers.

Evaluating and treating the communication impairment of PD patients while complex, it is rewarding, because improved functioning is possible with speech-voice-language and cognitive rehabilitation.

Contributed by Richard Merson, Ph.D., Speech and Language Pathologist, Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak Michigan
Chairman, MPF Professional Advisory Board, Member MPF Board of Directors

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists (OT) - Occupational therapy is a health care/rehabilitation profession. OT's work with people of all ages, who are experiencing difficulties with leading independent, productive, and satisfying lives. The goal of an occupational therapist is to assist individuals with performing their activities of daily living. People with Parkinson's Disease may need the help of an occupational therapist for many different reasons. While one person may need help learning various strategies to manage their tremors, another may need help with feeding skills, and yet another may need to learn various coordination exercises to maintain functional use of their hands, and someone else may need a home evaluation so the therapist can make recommendations on equipment needs and home safety, the list is endless. The treatment is individualized to your needs which is based on your goals for therapy as well as the therapists evaluation. If you have lost some independence due to your Parkinson's Disease consult your physician regarding occupational therapy.

Contributed by:
Sue Vergilio, O.T.R., St. John Macomb Hospital
Past Member, MPF Professional Advisory Board

Physical Therapy

Some symptoms of Parkinson's disease may include tremors, rigidity or muscular stiffness, and bradykinesia or slowness of movement. These symptoms can cause you pain, a decrease in range of motion in your joints, neck and back, a change in your posture and difficulty moving.

When you experience these problems, your balance and mobility may be affected. You may have difficulty walking and may even start to fall. If any of these occur, you may benefit from visiting a physical therapist. First you need to see your physician for a referral.

When you see a physical therapist, you will have a thorough evaluation. The P.T. will examine your range of motion, strength, coordination, balance, posture, functional mobility skills and your gait, or ability to walk.

One the evaluation is completed, recommendations may include assistive devices such as a cane or walker and a comprehensive exercise program designed especially for your needs. You will also be instructed on the importance of daily exercise or activity to help maintain or improve your quality of life.

Contributed by: Stacey Turner, R.P.T., St. John Macomb Hospital, Warren, MI
Past Member, MPF Professional Advisory Board

Mental Health Issues

The recognition and management of mental health issues is an important part of maintaining a high quality of life for all people. Common issues experience by people with Parkinson's and their families include depression, anxiety, acute confusional states, and dementia. Depression may cause sadness, loss of interest, guilt, lack of energy, insomnia and the inability to experience pleasure. Anxiety may be due to medical problems, pain, or be an understandable reaction to life's circumstances. Medical illness and medications are common causes of acute confusion. Finally, chronic confusion (or dementia) can be seen in some people with later stage Parkinson's Disease. Proper diagnosis of each of these conditions is important because treatment will improve the quality of life.

If you are experiencing any difficulties such as a change in mood or thinking, or anxiety, please discuss this with your physician. It is possible that medications prescribed for P.D. or other illnesses can cause some of these symptoms. You may need to have your medications adjusted. After exploring if there are any physical issues or medications that contribute to your mental health changes, you may receive a referral for further consultation.

Contributed by:

Mark Ensberg, M.D., Michigan State University School of Human Medicine, East Lansing, MI
Member, MPF Professional Advisory Board



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