Northwestern Medicine

Northwestern Medicine to Study Effect of Yoga on Parkinson's Disease Patients

Northwestern Memorial Hospital June 27, 2014

Results could provide patients a non-medical way to treat tremors, balance and muscle stiffness

CHICAGO, IL – For Shameem Ahmed, it started with an irritating eye twitch. The next few years brought more serious aches and pains. Then her legs started to shake and when she tried to brush her teeth, her arm wouldn’t straighten.Ahmed – who was living in St. Louis at the time – was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2008 when she was 53 years old. After her diagnosis, she asked her doctor every question she could think of about the disease and read every book and online article she could get her hands on. She wanted to take back control of her life.

Then she signed up for a yoga class.

While she is not a participant in Northwestern’s new pilot study, Ahmed states that yoga “has taught me to relax my mind and body and it takes away rigidity and pain.” She now attends about four advanced yoga classes a week and lives in Lake Zurich with her husband. “If I’m not in a class, I do yoga throughout the day to help control tremors, balance and pain.”

To find out more about the connection between Parkinson’s and yoga, the Northwestern Medicine Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center is conducting a pilot research study that will compare two groups of Parkinson’s patients – those who do yoga twice a week for three months and those who instead do another regular exercise, said Danny Bega, MD, a movement disorders fellow at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.  

After the three month study period, researchers will compare mobility, balance, speed of gait and dexterity and conduct assessments of mood, quality of life and fear of falling.  Positive results from this pilot study could provide a basis for further study of this non-pharmacologic intervention for Parkinson’s disease.

“Yoga, which used to be seen as a fringe exercise, is now a staple offered at most gyms and popular with people of all ages and athletic abilities,” Bega said. “Parkinson's is a mind-body disease, meaning it has effects not just on motor symptoms like stiffness and tremor, but also emotions, motivation, mood and cognition. We already know that traditional exercise is important for Parkinson’s patients - it improves strength, flexibility, and balance. Yoga may have the added advantage of being a mindfulness-based intervention with the potential ability to tap into the non-motor difficulties - things like anxiety, depression and apathy.

For Ahmed, yoga has become a way of life and she attributes it to improvements in her condition.

“When I was first diagnosed, I could hardly walk and I was barely talking,” Ahmed said. “I heard a lot about how important exercise and stretching were but I had never exercised in my life. My husband had a treadmill in our basement, but I never had the time. Since I started taking yoga classes, my mobility has improved and so have my spirits.”

Today she can’t imagine skipping yoga for even a week. She’s also walking and lifting weights. There are nearly1.5 million people in the United States living with Parkinson’s and an additional 50,000 to 60,000 cases diagnosed annually.  

Parkinson's is a progressive degenerative disorder that affects nerve cells, or neurons, in the part of the brain that controls movement. In Parkinson's, a certain group of nerve cells in the brain that produce the chemical dopamine are lost at a faster than normal rate. The lack of dopamine causes the symptoms of Parkinson's disease—tremor, slowness of movement, muscle stiffness, and balance problems.

“As the disease progresses, many Parkinson’s patients just can’t get their bodies to do what they want them to do,” said Tanya Simuni, MD,  director of the Northwestern Medicine Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center. “We know there are some activities that can have great psychological and physical benefits and yoga may very well be one of them.”

Northwestern’s Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center is the only National Parkinson Foundation Center of Excellence in Illinois. The center provides innovative, multidisciplinary care, while also conducting research to extend knowledge and treatment of movement disorders. There is an emphasis on education and support for patients, families, caregivers, healthcare providers and the community. 

For more information or to learn about participating in the study, contact Bradley Schifrien at 312.503.2593 or bschifri@nmff.org. To learn more about the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center, visit its website.

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