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Walking poles give people with Parkinson's a leg up

Thursday September 30, 2010

Linda J. Buch

denverpost.com - Q: My husband has Parkinson's disease and is frustrated by the difficulty this has created when wanting to walk for exercise. I have heard that walking poles are helpful.

A: Neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease affect both balance and posture. When people suffering from this disease go out walking for exercise or even to perform some errands at a store, they run the risk of falling, which usually exacerbates what is already a difficult situation. Therefore, many forgo exercise altogether.

People with Parkinson's walk with what is known as a "festinating gait," where they walk as if they are being pushed from behind, says Dr. A. William Menzin, of the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and former consultant to the World Health Organization.

Many people with Parkinson's become frustrated and/or embarrassed when they are out in public. Avoiding activity is not only physically unhealthy but the feeling of isolation can also bring on emotional problems, such as depression. Yes, there are walkers, canes and other devices, but some patients feel the stigma they carry — of feebleness and helplessness — leaves them in the closet out of denial and embarrassment.

Walking poles, on the other hand, evoke a sporty, energetic feeling and give people with Parkinson's an emotional boost and a more positive kinetic experience. In addition to proper propulsion, the poles also help with posture. And, since poles require the user to engage the muscles of the torso, arms, shoulders and back, their overall benefit is amplified.

Personal trainer Jayah Faye Paley of Pacifica, Calif., has found that poles are more empowering than a cane, which means that people are more likely to use them. As owner of Adventure Buddies Inc., she conducts seminars all over the country (including Colorado) to help people get the right poles, learn how to use them, adjust them and enjoy them.

"Setting the length of the pole to facilitate good posture is critical for people with Parkinson's," explains Paley. "Their bodies seem to sigh in relief at the bilateral stability."

Paley brings plenty of poles to her free clinics (caregivers are encouraged to attend, as well). She demonstrates how trekking poles can be used to facilitate a more upright posture and teaches the user how to navigate turns, curbs and stairs. These are the same poles hikers use to help improve endurance on an uphill and support for joints on the downhill.

Paley found that with minimal instruction, folks whose balance is challenged quickly feel more stable and start to walk quite naturally with two poles. Also, the poles have rubber tips, which make them a good choice for pavement and indoor practice.

Walking poles should be seriously considered for use by anyone with a debilitating disease or injury who feels trepidation when going out in public. An injured ankle, knee or hip, foot problems from diabetes, or any other gait and balance issue can find relief and a new feeling of confidence by using walking poles. Posture greatly improves, confidence and mood are positively affected, and general health and well-being are enhanced.

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