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Mindfulness works for Parkinson's patients
Saturday April 11, 2015
Terry Flynn and Tim Gebhardt
Coloradoan - Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month is here again, and with it comes a chance to review the latest exciting research in the field of Parkinson’s Disease, or PD.
Past research has already shown that exercise can significantly reduce symptoms of PD and help a person move and feel better. However, the World Health Organization defines health as “a state of dynamic harmony between the body, mind and spirit of a person.” So is there more that we can do besides just exercise to counteract the effects of PD? Researchers respond with a resounding “yes.”
Enter mindfulness. Those who practice mindfulness have been shown to have enhanced immune systems, relief from chronic illnesses, decreased anxiety, better focus, increased satisfaction with exercise and even structural brain change, a process called neuroplasticity.
So what exactly is mindfulness? The exercise of mindfulness can include breathing, self-talk, visualization or more advanced methods such as tai chi and qi gong. By practicing mindfulness along with a physical fitness program, one may engage the whole body and mind to improve neuroplasticity.
Research on the benefits of mindfulness for neurologic diseases such as PD has exploded. Here are just a few such examples:
Long-term mindfulness practitioners increase the working capacity of the brain and connections within the brain, and increase brain matter than non-practitioners. This suggests mindfulness may keep brains young and healthy. An eight-week mindfulness training program makes measurable changes in the brain structures associated with learning and memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. Only four days of mindfulness training can enhance the ability to sustain focused attention. It also shows significant improvements in mood, visuo-spatial processing, working memory and cognition.
Dr. Norman Doidge, MD, a leading expert in neuroscience and medicine, has made some fascinating discoveries on the power of the mind. Here are a few samples from his current book, “The Brain’s Way of Healing,” on the frontiers of brain neuroplasticity: His friend with PD was able to normalize his walking pattern. He did this by slowing down his walking, by using extreme “meditative” concentration to break apart each step, and by practicing for a full year. He found that by bringing the movement into conscious attention, he was able to take advantage of different brain areas that were not affected by PD.
This same friend eliminated his tremors by being more aware of his movement. For example, he held his glass of water more firmly, fixed his handwriting by switching from cursive writing to printing capitals, and discovered that by holding his fork at 45 degrees toward himself that his tremor disappeared. Other brain stimulation activities he used included: crosswords, Sudoku, bridge, chess, poker, dominoes, recording CDs of himself singing and learning French.
A longtime practitioner of mindfulness for 10 years, Rob Piper, a Fort Collins resident, was diagnosed with PD in 2014. He describes mindfulness in his life to be “living in the present moment and not dwelling in the past or future.” Mindfulness has helped him acknowledge his thoughts and emotions by being more present and responding to them rather than reacting to them. Sometimes he feels anxious regarding the future of his PD, but he is able to use mindfulness training to calm his anxieties and have more control of his mind and body. He describes how breathing is a “natural tranquilizer” that makes him feel more focused during the day, improves his sleep at night, and makes him more consciously aware of his physical movements.
He describes being more conscious of all of his senses during exercise. He sees more clearly, he feels the hiking poles in his hands and the rocks underneath his shoes; he smells the fresh air and hears nature around him. Rob considers mindfulness to be an integral and positive experience for both his physical and nonphysical symptoms of Parkinson’s and recommends it to those who are interested in practicing it.
For more information on mindfulness techniques, tai chi and qi gong awareness classes for PD, and participation in a research study on mindfulness, please visit our website at COLPTS.com.
Dr. John Zapanta, PT, DPT, conducts research in PD, and McKay Murdock, physical therapist intern, were the guest columnists. Drs. Tim Flynn and Terry Gebhardt are physical therapists and owners of Colorado Physical Therapy Specialists.
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