Often referred to as the "falling disease," Parkinson's is a progressive deterioration of the nerve cells in the part of the brain that controls muscle movement. Why those cells deteriorate is unknown, and doctors are still seeking a cure for the disease, which affects more than 1 million Americans.
In the meantime, people with Parkinson's do the best they can to manage the symptoms, which include muscle rigidity, loss of balance and uncontrollable shaking. Along with medications, health experts recommend that Parkinson's patients routinely stretch and exercise to stay limber.
Linda Varberg, a massage therapist who is finishing her training at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, recommends that people with Parkinson's try massage to stimulate circulation in the body.
"That's really essential for all of us, but especially for them," she said. "If you can keep the muscles oxygenated, it helps keep them flexible and strong."
Shirley Pozdro, who lives with Parkinson's disease, has seen the benefits of stretching on a routine basis.
"It has helped me stay a little bit more limber," she said. "And if I am conscientious about doing my exercises I feel better."
Pozdro said massage is also beneficial.
"Massage therapy is really good for Parkinson's persons because one of the hallmarks of the disease is rigidity," Pozdro said. "You feel very stiff, and the relaxation of a massage is very helpful."
Janet Hamburg, a registered movement therapist and Kansas University dance professor, leads the Lawrence Parkinson Support Group in stretches and exercise. The group meets on a monthly basis at First Presbyterian Church, 2415 Clinton Parkway.
"Everyone gets stiff, but people with Parkinson's become frozen," Hamburg said. "So unless they're really doing something actively to counter that, then their lives will be diminished."
She starts with simple breathing exercises.
"Breathing becomes very shallow," Hamburg said. "It's literally from the neck up. So we start out with a deep inhale and exhale -- making the breath bigger."
Then, it's on to wriggling and stretching the shoulders side to side. It's important to keep the torso limber, she said. Calf stretches are also important.
"Rapid forward or backward steps tends to happen to people with Parkinson's," she said. "Part of that is not having their weight centered and having the muscles shortened."
Hamburg says the support group is for people living with the disease, plus their caretakers and relatives.
"There's a real sharing of the research that's going on. There's a lot of hope, there's a lot of laughter, and there are strategies to help cope with this disease."
"This may be something that we haven't found a cure for yet, but we can live with and live successfully."
-- 6News reporter Kim Hall can be reached at 832-6326.