Exercise for pain in Parkinson's

Physiotherapist Bhanu Ramaswamy discusses why some people with Parkinson’s experience pain, and how exercise can help.

Physiotherapist Bhanu Ramaswamy smiling
By Bhanu Ramaswamy

Having Parkinson’s can impact your muscle tone and posture, putting stress on the joints and soft tissue in your body. Without regular exercise, weakening muscles can cause people with Parkinson’s to lean forwards or sideways. This then strains the muscles that are trying to keep the body upright and can compress soft tissue and joints over prolonged periods.

At first, these strains and stresses create ‘acute’ pains, which is the body’s way of warning us that something is wrong. Once the problem is corrected, the pain then goes away. But if the problem persists, so does the pain. After a point, the pain is no longer alerting us to a problem and serves little purpose. Yet it can have an enormous impact on your quality of life.

Pain is experienced as signals from the body that are interpreted by the brain. But these are very personal to the individual and to the emotions that each person links with pain. This means that professionals need to consider what’s causing each individual person’s aches, pains and cramps.

What type of pain can people with Parkinson’s experience?

There are several types of pain associated with Parkinson’s. The most common is muscle (musculoskeletal) pain. This comes from the muscles and bones and is usually felt as an ache around your joints, arms or legs. The pain stays in 1 area and doesn’t move around your body or shoot down your limbs, unlike the pain you might experience when the nerves are compressed and under stress.

How can exercise help?

If you experience pain, the thought of exercising can be a daunting one. Exercise is an ideal, and perfectly safe, way to combat pain. But different exercises are more effective for different sorts of pain.

For acute pain, it’s best to start with more gentle exercises, usually advised by a health professional such as a physiotherapist. For persistent pain, it’s a good idea to build on what you can already do with functional exercise. This involves training your muscles to perform common movements that you might do at home or at work.

Exercise may increase your discomfort in the short term while your body gets used to moving in a new way. But a lack of activity will only worsen the problem and the pain in the long term. Any initial discomfort is far outweighed by the positive impact regular exercise can have on persistent pain and your general wellbeing.

Functional exercise for persistent pain

You may not exercise much if you experience persistent pain. This can lead to stiff joints, weight gain, weak muscles and breathlessness. But there are some simple exercises that you can try around the house to help.

  • If you experience pain in your legs, keep them strong by practising standing up and sitting down in a chair.
  • If your shoulders are aching, start by loosening them with some shoulder rolling actions, then by lifting an object that is slightly weighty (such as a tin of beans) from a shelf, and then replacing it. This increases the range of movement in your back, shoulders and arms, and then your strength.

Improve your general fitness

Increasing your level of fitness will help you to manage your weight and ensure your joints aren’t under any additional stress.

You could try walking, swimming, dancing, cycling or aerobics – it’s up to you!

Help with specific areas of pain

If your pain is confined to a specific part of your body, consider seeing a professional, such as a physiotherapist, or an exercise professional who is trained to deal with conditions like Parkinson’s or with pain. They’ll be able to give you specific exercises to increase the strength and movement range of those particular joints and muscles.

Read more about pain and Parkinson's