Massage and Parkinson's

I’ve been wanting to writing a post about massage and Parkinson's disease for months. Actually, I’ve been wanting to write this post for more than two years. Rather unusually for me, I have struggled to find the words that seemed right - to start, what to say, how to express my thoughts. Here’s the honest truth as to why. Massage can’t 'cure' a client with Parkinson’s, it might make them feel better, but it won't help them get better. And this is something I really struggle with.

I’m in my mid-thirties so, like most people in my age bracket, have known people near and far who have received a diagnosis of cancer. Some have been lost, some have survived. In most cases there is some form of treatment, at least some means of ‘fighting’ the disease. But thinking further, I’ve actually been very lucky - the people that I have known and cared for in my personal life who have died have either been from old age and the complications this can bring, or from cancer whose fight was stronger than them in the end. Until two years ago.

What is Parkinson’s?

“This degenerative disorder affects voluntary movements and is characterised by muscle rigidity and sluggishness, and tremors arising from uncontrollable muscle twitching. If the speech muscles are affected, communication may become difficult. Stress can make tremors worse. Parkinson’s disease is associated with an imbalance of neurochemicals in the brain, particularly dopamine.” ~ Practical Pathology for the Massage Therapist, by Su Fox, p103

This ‘disease’ is a progressive, neurological condition with one in every 500 people lives with today. That’s around 127,000 here in the UK. The most common form of parkinsonism is idiopathic Parkinson’s which is commonly referred to as ‘just’ Parkinson’s. The cause is unknown. On top of this, the symptoms and rate of progression varies from person to person, which can make diagnosis difficult.

Symptoms

“The main symptoms of Parkinson's – tremor, rigidity and slowness of movement – are also the main symptoms of a number of conditions that are grouped together under the term parkinsonism.” ~ Parkinson’s UK website

The less commonly known, recognised nor talked about symptoms include falls and dizziness, sleep problems, swallowing problems, depression, constipation, anxiety and memory problems. It isn’t surprising to see why sometimes it can be difficult to diagnose. If you’d like more information on the symptoms of Parkinson’s do please visit the Parkinson’s UK website.

As a quick aside, being a huge fan of TEDTalks as you may have figured by now, I couldn’t help but include this little gem: A test for Parkinson’s with a phone call by Max Little, Applied Mathematician.

My relationship with PD

My paternal aunt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (or PD) more than 10 years ago. My maternal grandfather received the same diagnosis several years later … after falling again, and again, and again. Their progression was very different - one suffering very much with the psychological aspects of the disease, the anxiety, the depression, the hallucinations. The other, a very physical presentation - hence the falling. But the one similarity? The slowness of movement, that deliberate way of walking that once you have seen, you can recognise a mile off.

Massage for Parkinson’s

Wanting to write about massage in relation to Parkinson’s I decided to do the right thing and approached Parkinson’s UK, to find out whether they could point me in the direction of any research relating to massage for clients with Parkinson’s. Their Complimentary Therapy and Parkinson’s booklet puts forward their view, along with the appropriate research:

  • Research has suggested that massage therapy may help to reduce pain as well as feelings of anxiety and depression.
  • Research has also suggested that massage therapy, especially abdominal massage, can help with constipation.
  • Massage may also help to improve movement and flexibility.
  • Many people with Parkinson’s and their carers have told us they find massage therapy useful as a way to relax and to have time to themselves. Complementary therapies and Parkinson's (Word, 361KB) by Parkinson's UK

I also took some time to go through all of the old editions of the UK-based Massage World magazine, and US Massage Magazine and found something that really surprised me. There were plenty of articles in both magazines over the past 2 or 3 years covering massage for people with cancer, pre and post natal massage, infant massage, working with clients with Fibromyalgia, different sporting activities, alternative massage modalities … but not 1 article about massage for clients who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Nor Multiple Sclerosis. Nor Cerebral Palsy. I was really stunned.

I know and have had the privilege to work with clients with each of these conditions, and will do my best to continue to do so. As with massage in the first trimester, it is almost as though the massage community hasn’t woken up to the fact that clients who have received these diagnoses exist and that massage can help them experience their body in a different way. Yes these are complex conditions, with serious considerations - as with working with clients who have experienced spinal cord injuries (there was 1 article on this). But massage can help in SO many ways.

Rant over … for now. Back to the topic at hand.

My understanding is that massage for clients who have Parkinson’s boils down to this - it may help reduce pain, manage feelings of anxiety, depression, and physical symptoms such as constipation, improving movement and flexibility. But for me, the big one is that those with the disease, and their carers, have found that massage can be a “useful way to relax and to have time to themselves”.

So why now?

Two years ago this Sunday, my darling Grandpapa died. He did it his way, quietly and without fuss. I received the expected telephone call whilst I was in a refresher course for my First Aid qualification. The irony was obvious in what would have been a comedic sketch if I hadn’t felt so wretched - I returned to the course just as we were covering resuscitation.

I loved my grandfather very deeply. He was a man of few words. I will never forget going to visit him in hospital after one of his very many falls which then saw him contracting pneumonia, around the time I moved back in with my parents. He looked at me in the deep way that he did and just asked “Are you happier now?” He didn’t want details, he didn’t like drama, but he cared. When it came to himself, he had a wonderful wit, but he never asked for help, made excuses, lamented his fate. At the end, my grandfather lasted more than 6 months longer than we thought he might, but eventually had enough.

Conclusion

Massage can’t make Parkinson’s better. It can’t make the condition go away, reverse it, cure it. But knowledgable, conscious, considerate and nurturing touch may just make some of the symptoms more bearable. May provide relief. To patient and carer alike. Perhaps it comes back to what I’ve written before …

According to the Collins English Dictionary (Complete & Unabridged), the word Therapy originates from the Greek word therapeia meaning ‘attendance’ ~ Massage Therapy - What’s in a name?

[Massage] isn’t just about being ‘in the room’, but about being mentally and emotionally attentive. About being present ~ The Therapy in Massage Therapy

In a massage appointment there is the invitation, the opportunity to touch more than a client’s body. There is the potential to really listen, to attend to their whole being. To simply be with them in that moment, to accept their body, their mind and their soul as it is. Reflecting on this essence, I came across this quote:

“Sit with me, and I’ll not be alone, Hold my hand, and I’ll not feel alone Cry with me, and I’ll no longer suffer alone.” ~ Richelle E Goodrich (italics added by Victoria K Armstrong)