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Music for Parkinson's

In this study, conducted by researchers at the Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Centre in Pavia, Italy, music therapy proved to be a powerful tool in improving motor skills, emotional well-being, and quality of life for Parkinson's patients. Researchers found that music therapy was in fact more effective than the standard physical therapy in many areas, and particularly in helping to relieve bradykinesia (slowness of movement) and improving the patient's overall emotional state. The single-blind, randomized study was reported in a 2000 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

How It Was Done

Music therapy (MT) involves improvising to music in a group. The use of instruments is designed to engage all the sensory organs. Exposure to rhythm and melody encourages physical and emotional responses while patients move to the music. Together, the musical elements stimulate different sensory pathways. (Passive music therapy, as opposed to the type of "active" music therapy tested in this study, uses music to relax and comfort patients while they are at rest.)

Thirty-two Parkinson's patients were invited to participate in the three-month study. Sixteen (divided into two groups of 8) were randomly assigned to weekly sessions of MT, and 16 (also in two groups of 8) to weekly PT sessions. The groups were similar in age, time since diagnosis, duration and severity of illness, degree of motor impairment and disability, extent of emotional dysfunction, and the quality of life they reported. All were on dopamine therapy for a month prior to, and throughout, the trial.

Before and after each session, patients were examined by a neurologist. Patients in the PT groups performed their exercises individually (although in the same work-out area at the same time), interacting minimally with one another. The hour and a half weekly sessions involved, among other activities, passive muscle stretching, motor tasks, weight shifting and balance training, and use of specific movement strategies.

Patients in the MT groups took part in weekly sessions that averaged 2 hours in length. The sessions included listening to music while visualizing relaxing images, choral singing with facial movements, breathing and voice exercises, rhythmic movements, and group improvisation. Couples, small groups, or the group as a whole performed the exercises with a high level of interaction and communication among the participants.

Why It's Important

One of the great challenges of Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurologic disorder, is that it can cause not only physical suffering but emotional anguish. Depression and social isolation often accompany the physical disabilities of the disease (rigid muscles, slow movement, staggering gait).

This well-designed study is the first to objectively examine music therapy's effects on emotional well-being and other standardized measures of Parkinson's disease. (All that was known previously was that exposure to rhythmic music could improve movement and gait in people with Parkinson's.) Although physical therapy is often effective in lessening rigidity, it has little apparent impact on mood and emotions. Active MT, on the other hand, offers patients a chance to be a part of a musical experience. They create music together, forging a creative human connection that does more than lift spirits; it appears to have the power to strongly improve abnormalities in gait, posture, and other areas of motor performance.

The study findings indicate that the social and emotional aspects of MT offer real and measurable benefits for people with Parkinson's. Specifically, by the end of the study, MT participants reported feelings of well-being that persisted at home, saying that they were more active and inclined to keep themselves busy. In particular, they said they appreciated the social contact and creative expression that MT offered.

In addition to marked improvements in emotional well-being, MT significantly improved the participants' ability to perform certain daily activities such as feeding and dressing. MT also had a stronger positive impact than PT on minimizing bradykinesia. PT alone proved more effective in easing muscle rigidity, but had no effect on emotional functioning. Neither PT nor MT affected tremor.

The study authors contend that emotional networks in the brain that are not influenced by PT may be activated during MT. Based on the strengths of this study findings, they propose that MT be added to Parkinson's disease rehabilitation programs.

Source: Pacchetti C, et al. Active Music Therapy in Parkinson's Disease: An Integrative Method for Motor and Emotional Rehabilitation. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2000;62:386-393.

Date Published: 09/29/2002
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