If you or someone you know carries a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, I would like to offer a hopeful note by saying it is possible to still live a full, productive and meaningful life. Some of my clients feel that their lives have actually improved after their diagnosis, because of lifestyle changes they have made and by integrating self-care techniques.
One client I worked with lost excess weight and regained overall mobility after experiencing stiffness for several years. He can now run, dance, garden and play with his grandchildren.
Another client now sleeps through the night knowing how to manage dystonic pain in his right shoulder using self-massage and deep relaxation techniques. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all program, and you should always consult your doctor before starting any exercise program.
But I would like to share how through this work I have witnessed clients going from depressed to hopeful and empowered after a few months of regular yoga and self-massage practice.
Hope for Managing Pain in Parkinson’s Disease
We all know that movement is good for the body and mind, but it is especially crucial for managing pain and other Parkinson’s disease symptoms. Movement has been shown to promote neuroplasticity, and research also suggests that exercise may help to modulate the experience of pain in Parkinson’s disease (PD).
I see most of my clients with PD 2-3 times a week. But not everyone with PD has the resources to hire a trainer or therapist to work with them privately so often. Luckily for those who are open to alternative therapeutic interventions, there’s hope!
Exercise, such as yoga, meditation and self-applied massage have been shown to dramatically help reduce symptoms and improve overall quality of life.
For those with PD, sometimes the biggest obstacle is the lack of motivation and depression. It is important to address the these individuals with compassion, and to remember that the healing process starts with a hopeful and positive attitude.
What Exactly is Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that may lead to disabling motor and cognitive impairment. The development of the disease is slow and gradual, and progression of symptoms is often different from one person to another due to the diversity of the disease.
In some, it starts with a little tremor in just one hand, which is the most widely known symptom of PD. Muscle stiffness and slowness of movement are also common signs of PD. Typically, Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsen as the condition progresses over time.
PD isn’t something that can be cured. Conventional treatments include medications to improve the symptoms. In some cases, doctors may suggest surgery to regulate certain regions of the patient’s brain and improve symptoms.
Types of Pain With Parkinson’s Disease
The most common PD symptoms are movement related such as tremor, slowed movement, rigidity and balance issues. Yet, about 30% to 85% of people with PD experience chronic pain. This can show up as joint pain, neck pain, back pain, abdominal pain, leg pain, hand pain or foot pain (and more). Numbness and tingling is also common.
In rare cases, pain is so severe that it overshadows the motor symptoms of the disorder.
There are four primary types of pain in PD: musculoskeletal, dystonic, neuropathic and central pain. Here I will only be discussing musculoskeletal and dystonic pain, since these are the types that I see most often and am most familiar with.
Musculoskeletal pain is typically related to muscle rigidity, poor posture and/or slowed movement–which limits range of motion.
Dystonic pain usually shows itself as painful spreading or bending of the toes or fingers or inversion of one foot but can occur in any area of the body. Sometimes dystonic pain is a sign of extremely low dopamine levels, especially when it occurs first thing in the morning or late at night, when the medication tends to wear out.
My Most Useful Practices for Managing Pain and Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease
Any movement is better than no movement. My favorite is an exercise called Spontaneous Movement, which is a practice I learned from Qigong. There is no prescribed movement, it’s based on inner guidance. Typically, you start by standing with your feet wider than outer hip width, with knees slightly bend, and tails slightly tucked. Then you can wiggle, shake the arms, bounce gently as if you’re trying to shake off stress and dirt off the body. Do this for 2 mins, and you can work you way up to 5 or more minutes!
Any style that feels appropriate for the individual. I recommend a mix of mild cardio with slow breath-centered mindful movements (similar to Tai Chi and Qigong).
3. Deep relaxation rocks!
It is an underutilized yet powerful tool! This can be done in seated meditation or lying down in savasana and/or guided yoga nidra.
No money? No problem! My favorite self-massage tools (besides my own hands) are Yoga Tune Up® therapy balls! These are great tools not just for down regulation and relaxation, but also for pain relief.
I encourage my PD students to do these practices at least 45 minutes a day, 4-5 times or more each week. For people who have been living a more sedentary lifestyle, they should start with 5-10 minutes a day for a couple weeks, then increase the duration each week.
Another option (besides hiring a trainer/teacher/therapist to offer guidance) is to use other creative resources. Find a gentle yoga or mindful movement class that is affordable and reasonable to get to.
Or start a PD support group where the participants can meet weekly or a couple times a week. Each participant could pay a small amount to the practice leader for movement and relaxation facilitation.
Staying Positive and Engaged into the Future
All my PD clients remain active members of their families and communities—physically, socially and professionally. To maintain their active lives, they will need to integrate self-care practices into their routine for the rest of their lives.
Instead of seeing self-care as unpleasant chore, I help them see it as an uplifting practice that brings about inner peace and allows them to live full lives. I am beyond grateful for my clients who teach me so much about courage, resilience and the healing power of positivity!
These suggestions are not meant to replace the care of a doctor. Consult your doctor before beginning any movement, self-massage, or fitness protocol.
Thanks to these resources for insight and information: