Problems such as slow and short steps are very common in Parkinson’s disease. They lead to increased risks of falling, as well as reduced mobility and quality of life.
There is no medication that can completely restore walking ability in people with Parkinson’s, so physiotherapy is needed.
Existing physiotherapy techniques do help improve walking among Parkinson’s patients but they have not changed in decades.
Dr Sam Stuart, from Northumbria University, Newcastle, says research needs to establish why they work because not all patients benefit from the “one-size-fits-all” approach.
His study, funded by a prestigious Clinical Research Award from the Parkinson’s Foundation, will use state-of-the-art digital technology to measure walking and brain activity changes among patients when given various prompts.
Dr Stuart, a senior researcher in the university’s Department of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation, said: “Numerous physiotherapy strategies have been used, such as stepping over lines on the floor or stepping in time to a metronome beat, to improve walking in Parkinson’s.
“However, these interventions haven’t changed in decades and we don’t know why walking improves with these techniques. This has led to not all patients benefiting and only short-term walking improvements being seen.”
“It is unclear if these strategies are effective with the progression of Parkinson’s disease, and we don’t know which type of strategy is most effective at different stages of the disease.”
“By activating specific brain regions, and analysing brain activity in response to these physiotherapy strategies using the latest digital technology, our aim is to see a change in patients’ response at different stages of Parkinson’s disease.”
Parkinson’s is the largest growing neurological disorder in the world, with one in 37 people at risk of developing the disease in their lifetime.
According to Dr Stuart, finally understanding the reasons why people benefit from physiotherapy, and who benefits most from specific interventions, will enable healthcare professionals to provide more timely and efficient treatment for people with Parkinson’s.
“The physiotherapy strategies we currently provide for patients with Parkinson’s don’t work for everybody,” he said. “We need more targeted and personalised interventions if we’re going to see a real improvement in walking ability among patients.
“By developing a better understanding of why these strategies work, we can also develop more effective interventions in the future to further improve walking.”