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Tipping Points

Tuesday August 16, 2016

14 years into diagnosis, the falls still come as a surprise. One minute I’m upright and sailing along, The next the asphalt is rushing up at me. The alarms sound, the adrenaline spikes, the needles jump into the red, we’re going down! Shields up! SHIELDS UP!!!...  But there are no shields. 180 pounds of vulnerable flesh and bone crashes to the earth. Damage control, report! Minor bruises, a worried wife, battered dignity, and foreboding about the future.                  

I spent painful months learning how to walk as a toddler, crashing into coffee tables and falling down stairs. Now that I am an adult, I find unlearning how to walk is even more painful. I don’t bounce the way I did when I was 15 months, or, for that matter, like I did when I was fifty. 

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Sure, I could avoid the pain of falling by crawling everywhere I go. Or by opting for a wheelchair. But walking on two legs is seen as one of the badges of being human. Giving that up is more painful than breaking your arm. How do I know? Simple. I broke my arm in a fall two years ago, yet I still insist on walking upright. I still insist on carrying groceries and my musical instruments in spite of close calls. It’s a matter of pride in exercising a basic prerogative of humanity, to stand on our own two feet.

And the thing is, I don’t really know how much to blame PD. Yes, I fall much more frequently than I did when I was younger, so there is definitely something going on.  But I’ve only had a few falls which didn’t at least have other contributing factors. For instance, the time I was slowing to a stop on my bike, and put my foot down in a bunch of loose pebbles. The ball-bearing effect was swift as it was impressive. Also as painful. Or in the arm-breaking fall, how much was Parkinson’s and how much was the rug that was askew next to the sill of the door? Other times, the fall is clearly Parkinson’s-related. Freezing when momentum has built up  and toppling over, But is that a matter of balance, or of the inability to move with the freedom I once enjoyed?. If my balance is shot, why don’t I fall more often?

As so frequently with Parkinson’s Disease, there are no answers yet for these questions. Questions made up of overlapping mysteries. But I can report there is progress being made, even in this vexing area.

When I was diagnosed more than a decade ago, the threat of falling and its associated calamities, broken bones, being bedridden, and the pain and demoralization that are part of the package, were one of the aspects of PD I regarded with the most anxiety. When I looked for advice in the literature about falls, all that was offered was advice on how to get back up. Falling itself was inevitable, a given.
 
We know now that there are things we can do to maintain and even improve our sense of balance. In case you haven’t heard, among those things are Yoga and Tai Chi. These may not prevent erosion of balance forever, but the longer they keep you intact and out of the hospital, not to mention off the asphalt, the better. 

It’s hard not to feel like little actual progress is being made in the struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. But what a difference a decade makes in dealing with one of its most painful and threatening aspects.

Peter Dunlap-ShohlPeter Dunlap-Shohl
NWPF Blogger

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