Exercise helps prevent falls in Parkinson's patients

January 23, 2017 by Benedicte Pentz, University of Stavanger
Exercise helps prevent falls in Parkinson’s patients
One study shows that tai chi, which is described as a gentle, inner, Chinese martial art, could be achieving good results in preventing falls in people with Parkinson’s disease. Credit: Shutterstock

Statistics show that 25 per cent of recently diagnosed patients suffered a fall in the first year. That came as a surprise to researchers. They had thought that falls tended to occur during later stages of the disease.

Fetching the shopping bags out of the car, going up the stairs, finding the house keys, locating the lock and opening the door. These are everyday actions that you don't think about, but they need coordination, planning and ability to be carried out.

But for a person with Parkinson's, even the simplest of tasks can cause the brain to short-circuit. The signals get crossed, and without quite being able to explain how it happens, they fall over.

"You are at more risk of falling if you have already had a fall. That's why it's important to take seriously, particularly at an of the disease", says researcher and special physiotherapist Ylva Hivand Hiorth of Stavanger University Hospital.

In her recent PhD thesis from the University of Stavanger, she researched falls at early stages of Parkinson's disease.

When she started her research, this was a completely blank field. The researchers were surprised that as many as 25 per cent of recently diagnosed patients suffered a fall in the first year.

Their expectations were more consistent with the statistic that over 70 per cent of patients who had lived with the disease for 16 years suffered falls.

Twice as many with Parkinson's

Parkinson's disease is a chronic disease that affects the nervous system, and its symptoms vary hugely from person to person. It causes some people to have difficulty walking and keeping their balance, others have tremors, while some have muscles rigidity and find it difficult to do several things at the same time.

Around one per cent of the population over the age of 60 has Parkinson's.

In the population over the age of 70, the figure rises to four per cent. The disease becomes more common as we get older. Most people who are diagnosed are over the age of 55.

Calculations show that the prevalence will double by the year 2030, because life expectancy is increasing.

"That's why it's extremely important to know how best to meet the challenges presented by Parkinson's disease, both for the patients and for the community", says Hiorth.

Which people are suffering falls?

As well as establishing that falls at an early stage of the disease are relatively common, she has also identified the risk factors that show who is more likely to suffer an early fall.

Classifying Parkinson's disease into sub-groups with similar dominating symptoms could make it easier to identify people who are at greater risk of falling. She has found that those who have a sub-group not dominated by tremors often fall at an early stage of the disease.

"We have found that 'established fallers' are more difficult to help. Our hope is that the earlier we can intervene, the more we can do to prevent falls", says Hiorth.

People with Parkinson's are treated with medication. The medication acts by replacing the dopamine in the brain, which the body is no longer producing naturally. This suppresses some of the symptoms, but does not prevent falls.

"We don't know enough about what causes some people to fall, but several new studies indicate that we are getting closer to a solution", says Hiorth.

Tai chi can help

She believes that exercise could be important, possibly combined with new medicines.

One study shows that tai chi, which is described as a gentle, inner, Chinese martial art, could be achieving good results in preventing falls in people with Parkinson's disease. Exercises that strengthen lower limbs can also help, as can balance exercises.

"The most important investment someone can make is to find a type of exercise that they enjoy", says Hiorth.

Many people with Parkinson's become less active because of the disease. They might stop playing football for their company team, because of jokey comments made by their colleagues about their constant stumbling. Or they stop going for walks because they might fall, and need help to get up again.

Being offered rehabilitation

Up to now, patients with Parkinson's have not been offered the chance to stay on the hospitals Rehabilitation Ward. What they have been offered is medication, and perhaps a referral to see a physiotherapist.

"It's difficult for healthcare personnel in the public healthcare system to acquire sufficient knowledge about Parkinson's. They don't encounter all that many patients with this diagnosis. For this reason, we have worked with the Norwegian Parkinson's Disease Association to produce a brochure about fall prevention", says Hiorth.

However, the Rehabilitation Ward at Stavanger University Hospital is now moving towards offering patients a more interdisciplinary and coordinated rehabilitation service.

They hope to be able to develop a better network between the hospital and community.

"If we manage to prevent early falls, this will give living with Parkinson's a better life and the confidence to stay as active as possible", says Ylva Hivand Hiorth.

Explore further: Exercise may be real medicine for Parkinson's disease

More information: Ylva Hivand Hiorth: Falls in Parkinson's disease. Doctoral Thesis, University of Stavanger (2016)

C. G. Canning et al. Exercise for falls prevention in Parkinson disease: A randomized controlled trial, Neurology (2014). DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000001155

Related Stories

Exercise may be real medicine for Parkinson's disease

December 22, 2016
(HealthDay)—Almost any exercise is good medicine for someone with Parkinson's disease, a new study confirms.

Parkinson's disease diagnosis may be preceded by increased risk of injury-causing falls

February 2, 2016
Years before Parkinson's disease (PD) is diagnosed, patients may be at higher risk for injurious falls or hip fractures, according to research published this week in PLOS Medicine. Peter Nordström and colleagues at Umeå ...

Common dementia drug found to improve Parkinson's symptoms

January 13, 2016
Scientists have discovered that a commonly prescribed dementia drug could hold the key to helping prevent debilitating falls for people with Parkinson's.

Falls prevention in Parkinson's disease

October 12, 2011
A study carried out by the Primary Care Research Group at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and NIHR PenCLAHRC, has analysed the results of an ...

Can exercise help people with Parkinson's disease?

December 31, 2014
Exercise may help people with Parkinson's disease improve their balance, ability to move around and quality of life, even if it does not reduce their risk of falling, according to a new study published in the December 31, ...

Recommended for you

Two compounds in coffee may team up to fight Parkinson's

December 10, 2018
Rutgers scientists have found a compound in coffee that may team up with caffeine to fight Parkinson's disease and Lewy body dementia—two progressive and currently incurable diseases associated with brain degeneration.

New Parkinson's disease drug target revealed through study of fatty acids

December 4, 2018
The human brain is rich in lipids. Investigators studying Parkinson's disease (PD) have become increasingly interested in lipids since both molecular and genetic studies have pointed to the disruption of the balance of the ...

A toxin that travels from stomach to brain may trigger Parkinsonism

December 4, 2018
Combining low doses of a toxic herbicide with sugar-binding proteins called lectins may trigger Parkinsonism—symptoms typical of Parkinson's disease like body tremors and slowing of body motions—after the toxin travels ...

Experimental cancer drug shows promise for Parkinson's

December 3, 2018
The study, funded by Parkinson's UK, suggests that the drug, tasquinimod, which is not yet on the market, works by controlling genes that may cause Parkinson's. This happens when the drug interacts with a protein inside brain ...

Parkinson's therapy creates new brain circuits for motor function, study finds

November 28, 2018
Scientists have uncovered that an emerging gene therapy for Parkinson's disease creates new circuits in the brain associated with improved motor movement. These findings, published today in Science Translational Medicine ...

The puzzle of a mutated gene lurking behind many Parkinson's cases

November 15, 2018
Genetic mutations affecting a single gene play an outsized role in Parkinson's disease. The mutations are generally responsible for the mass die-off of a set of dopamine-secreting, or dopaminergic, nerve cells in the brain ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.