Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects movement. As Parkinson’s disease progresses, many people develop mobility issues such as:
- Shuffling gait
- Freezing of gait
- Loss of balance
These symptoms can make Parkinson’s patients unsteady on their feet and increase their risk of falling. In this article, we’ll explore the connection between Parkinson’s and balance problems. We’ll cover:
- What causes balance and gait issues in Parkinson’s
- The stages of Parkinson’s disease and when balance problems emerge
- Treatment options to improve stability and prevent falls
Understanding why Parkinson’s disease leads to unsteadiness and falls can help patients and caregivers find solutions. Proper treatment and lifestyle adjustments can significantly improve mobility and allow those with Parkinson’s to remain active and independent.
What Causes Balance and Walking Problems in Parkinson’s?
Parkinson’s disease disrupts the normal functioning of a brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is produced in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra and helps transmit signals that control smooth, coordinated muscle movements.
As Parkinson’s kills off dopamine-producing neurons, the signals between the brain and muscles are impaired. This leads to the primary motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease:
- Tremor – shaking of particular body parts like the hands
- Rigidity – stiffness and inflexibility of the limbs and trunk
- Bradykinesia – slowness of voluntary movement
- Postural instability – impaired balance and coordination
Postural instability, the last symptom, is what causes many Parkinson’s patients to have trouble with walking and balance. With Parkinson’s, the systems that normally allow us to orient ourselves and adjust our posture to avoid falling become dysfunctional.
Specifically, Parkinson’s appears to disrupt the following processes involved in balance and gait:
- Proprioception – the body’s innate “position sense.” Input from proprioceptors in the joints, tendons, and muscles helps the brain automatically adjust posture.
- Vestibular system – the inner ear organs responsible for balance. Vestibular dysfunction causes vertigo and disorientation.
- Motor reflexes – quick, automatic muscle responses to maintain stability. Impaired reflexes result in falls.
- Motor planning and sequencing – the brain’s coordination of precise muscle activation patterns needed to walk or change position.
With these critical systems compromised, Parkinson’s patients struggle to stabilize their bodies during standing and walking. They are unable to quickly correct small lapses in balance before a fall occurs.
Let’s look closer at some of the specific gait and balance impairments caused by these postural control deficits in Parkinson’s.
People with Parkinson’s often develop an abnormal, shuffling walk pattern. This unstable gait stems from the inability to properly sequence the intricate steps of normal walking.
Common Parkinson’s gait abnormalities include:
- Short, shuffling steps
- Little or no arm swing
- Variable stride length
- “Stooped” or forward-leaning posture
- Turning en bloc instead of pivoting
- Difficulty initiating gait (hesitation) or stopping
Parkinson’s patients may also experience episodic freezing of gait. During a freezing episode, patients describe feeling as if their feet are “glued to the floor.” Freezing often occurs when starting to walk, turning, or approaching doorways.
Impaired Balance Reactions
In addition to gait disturbances, Parkinson’s also impairs balance reactions that help avoid falls, like:
- Postural reflexes – automatic recovery responses that stabilize posture when standing or walking on uneven or slippery surfaces, or when bumped from behind.
- Protective stepping – quickly stepping to regain balance after tripping or experiencing a sudden loss of stability.
Without these quick reflexes, people with Parkinson’s are slow to respond to any perturbations in gait. Small slips and trips turn into dangerous, uncontrolled falls.
Risk Factors for Falls
Several factors appear to increase the risk of falls and fractures specifically in Parkinson’s patients:
- Disease severity – postural instability emerges in the mid-to-late stages as Parkinson’s progresses.
- Freezing of gait – freezing episodes often end in a fall.
- Cognitive impairment – dementia affects judgement needed to avoid hazards.
- Age – advanced age increases fall risk in general.
- Previous falls – the strongest predictor of future falls.
Identifying these risk factors can help guide treatment and prevention strategies. Next, we’ll look at how balance problems evolve during the course of Parkinson’s disease.
Stages of Parkinson’s and Balance Impairment
Like other Parkinson’s symptoms, balance and walking difficulties worsen gradually over the disease course. Problems with gait and posture tend to first appear in the mid-stages of Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s Disease Stages
Doctors describe Parkinson’s progression using a five-stage scale called the Hoehn and Yahr scale:
|Stage 1||Symptoms only on one side of the body|
|Stage 2||Symptoms present bilaterally, minimal impairment|
|Stage 3||Significant slowing and loss of balance, physical independence preserved|
|Stage 4||Severe symptoms, but can still walk unassisted|
|Stage 5||Wheelchair-bound or bedridden|
Timeline of Balance Impairment
Here is a general timeline of when Parkinson’s patients experience changes in balance and mobility:
- Early stages (1-2) – No significant balance impairment. Normal gait.
- Mid stages (2-3) – Balance becomes impaired but falls are uncommon. Mild gait disturbances appear.
- Late stages (3-5) – Severe instability with frequent falls. Shuffling gait pattern. Freezing episodes.
Progression varies between individuals. But most patients develop recognizable balance problems starting around mid-stage Parkinson’s. Let’s look at maintaining stability and mobility during each phase.
During early Parkinson’s, most patients move normally without assistance and do not experience falls. Since motor symptoms manifest asymmetrically at first, one side of the body is more affected.
While balance remains relatively intact in early Parkinson’s, focused exercise programs can help delay the progression of instability. Early physical therapy emphasizing posture, core strength, and balance is recommended.
In the mid-stages, Parkinson’s symptoms worsen bilaterally. Balance impairments and gait abnormalities first appear during this phase but are relatively mild.
Mid-stage patients may occasionally “shuffle” while walking or have trouble recovering after a small stumble. Turning and initiating walking can be challenging. Self-care and daily activities are still independent, but mobility requires more concentration.
Falls become more frequent in the mid-stages for several reasons:
- Progressively worsening postural control
- Emergence of freezing episodes
- Reduced arm swing affects gait stability
- Orthostatic hypotension (blood pressure drop) upon standing
- Cognitive issues make avoiding hazards harder
Doctors may recommend walking aids or orthotics in the mid-stages to enhance stability. Ongoing physiotherapy is critical to delay mobility loss.
In late Parkinson’s, severe balance deficits result in frequent falls and injury. Patients are often unable to stand or walk without significant help from a caregiver.
Shuffling gait patterns give way to wheelchair reliance. Freezing episodes are prolonged, triggering falls. Dementia is frequently present as well.
In the late stages, maximizing safety becomes the focus. Ambulatory patients require extensive mobility assistance. Home modifications such as grab bars, railings, ramps, and avoiding clutter/hazards can help reduce falls. However, use of wheelchairs and supported lifts is often inevitable.
Treatment Options for Parkinson’s Balance Problems
While Parkinson’s itself remains incurable, various treatment strategies can improve stability and prevent dangerous falls. Let’s examine some of the medical, movement, and lifestyle-based approaches.
Parkinson’s medications work by increasing dopamine concentrations in the brain or mimicking dopamine’s activity. The main drug classes are:
- Levodopa – dopamine precursor converted into dopamine
- Dopamine agonists – mimic dopamine’s effects
- MAO-B inhibitors – inhibit dopamine breakdown
- Anticholinergics – block acetylcholine activity to enhance dopamine’s effects
While these medications help manage motor symptoms overall, they can have varying effects on postural stability:
- Improvement – Some find Sinemet (levodopa) enhances balance and gait.
- No effect – Dopamine agonists may not improve postural control.
- Worsening – Anticholinergics can worsen balance through cognitive effects.
Doctors may need to adjust medications to optimize mobility while minimizing side effects. Using the lowest effective doses can enhance stability.
Specialized Parkinson’s physical therapy is essential for maintaining mobility and balance. PT programs aim to:
- Improve posture, strength, flexibility, and coordination
- Retrain balance reactions and protective steps
- Practice dual tasking – walking while doing cognitive tasks
- Use verbal or visual cues to overcome freezing of gait
- Reduce fall risk factors
Exercises focused on core stability, posture, leg strength, and balance retraining are most effective. PT is beneficial in all Parkinson’s stages but should start early to promote mobility.
Devices like walkers, canes, and braces provide physical support and stability aids:
- Canes – Improve posture and provide a wide base of support while walking.
- Walkers – Allow grasping with both hands to stabilize the body during gait.
- Orthotics – Braces can lift the toes to prevent tripping during shuffling.
Equipment is very helpful in mid-late stage Parkinson’s. Parkinson’s-specific items like weighted canes may boost mobility. However, aids must be properly fitted by therapists.
Adapting the home environment can significantly reduce fall risk:
- Removing tripping hazards – rugs, cords, clutter
- Adding grab bars, railings, and ramps
- Improving lighting throughout
- Using shower chairs, raised toilet seats
- Adding seating in high-use areas
Home safety assessments by occupational therapists guide appropriate changes. Installing a personal emergency response system enables calling for help after a fall.
Certain lifestyle adjustments also promote stability in Parkinson’s:
- Exercise consistently – cardio, strength training, balance work
- Practice Tai Chi or yoga to improve posture, core strength, and balance
- Have vision and hearing tested regularly
- Ensure proper nutrition and hydration
- Limit alcohol intake
- Use nightlights and turn on lights before getting out of bed
- Rise slowly from sitting or lying to avoid blood pressure drops
A combination of medical, physical, and lifestyle approaches works best to maximize mobility in Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease frequently leads to progressive instability and balance problems that affect walking ability and increase fall risk. Impairments in posture, gait, and balance reactions emerge due to the effects of dopamine deficiency on motor control pathways.
While Parkinson’s balance issues worsen gradually over time, targeted treatment can improve stability and prevent dangerous falls. Medication adjustments, physical therapy, mobility aids, home modifications, and lifestyle changes can all help compensate for Parkinson’s-related deficits.
With proper management, people with Parkinson’s can safely maintain their mobility and independence for a long time. But addressing balance impairments early is key to optimizing both safety and quality of life.