virtual-physical-therapyHere’s some good news for people who’ve been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It is possible to forestall, arrest and even decrease the progression of symptoms typically associated with the disease by following an innovative program of regular exercise.

Therapies especially designed to address individual Parkinson’s patient’s needs have been found to do all that.

A key is to start therapies upon diagnosis, even before symptoms flare up. But that doesn’t mean those with difficulty moving or speaking cannot be helped.

The only place for several counties around offering this dedicated Parkinson’s treatment program is Helen Hayes Hospital on Route 9W in West Haverstraw. And Orange County residents can enroll. All they need is a prescription from their specialist.

The Helen Hayes Hospital program, which is located roughly 30-35 miles from the center of Orange County, uses some of the most up-to-date treatment methods available. Therapies focus on movement, speech, wellness and issues specific to individuals with Parkinson’s — such as navigating one’s own home turf — and together, they’re helping to make life easier for many.

The program is headed up by physical therapist Sandy Fini and occupational therapist Beth Williams. Both have received specialized training and have worked with close to 100 Parkinson’s patients at Helen Hayes. They’re enthusiastic proponents of their work and its effect. And they want to spread the word “that therapy needs to be initiated upon diagnosis,” said Williams.

“What makes us specialized is we have therapists that are certified in specific treatments for Parkinson’s patients,” said Fini. Among those programs are two, LSVT BIG and LVST LOUD, which are research-based therapy protocols that hone in on the two main symptoms of the disease—functional mobility and speech output. That means people who have trouble moving, or transitioning from sit to stand positions, for instance, and those who have difficulty forming words or modulating their voices, are helped by these programs.

Complementing these treatments is Parkinson’s Wellness Recovery (PWR), a program where Parkinson’s patients receive research-based exercise programming that is neuroplasticity-principled. Such programming holds the promise of slowing disease progression, restoring motor function and increasing longevity and quality of life.

“There have been multiple studies that show exercise can actually decrease the progression of Parkinson’s,” said Fini, “not only motor but non-motor symptoms. Also, what has been shown is that inactivity can accelerate the progression of Parkinson’s.”

What is the difference between occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT)?

“OT focuses on the function of the individual, in their life,” said Williams. “Anywhere from their activities of daily living to their visual and cognitive deficit. OT focuses more on the fine motor, cognitive and vision.”

“PT is focused more on gross motor movements,” said Fini, “your transfers from sit to stand on various surfaces, your ambulation, walking, how big a step individuals are taking, how to get up from the floor safely in case you fall.”

While the treatments may be similar, the areas of focus differ. It makes sense that repeated exercise can affect the areas that Parkinson’s attacks, the two say. “It’s just like medicine,” Fini explained. “If you would not skip a dose of your med, then you should not skip exercise.” Its value, especially as designed for Parkinson’s patients, cannot be understated.

Some of their work involves helping patients train themselves to manage a skill that once was instinctive, such as walking and turning movements. “We’re training them to put more of a thought into the activities that used to be automatic.” They are helping patients to “retrain the brain, with constant repetition,” said Williams.

Parkinson’s disease can bring it with a host of problems from disturbed sleep to swallowing trouble, from tremors to falls. Individuals and their caregivers are benefitting from the comprehensive program at Helen Hayes, which puts it all together. By addressing motor skills, cognitive skills, offering speech therapy, Fini and Williams say, they are seeing positive results.

For more information, visit, click on the hospital services tab and find the Parkinson’s disease therapy program listed under outpatient rehabilitation, or call the Helen Hayes Hospital Outpatient Neurology Center at 786-4306. The hospital also offers a free support group on the third Friday of the month at 10:30 a.m.

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