Share on Pinterest
Researchers say Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder. Getty Images

A high-tech tool may be able to help people with Parkinson’s disease improve their balance and reduce their risk of dangerous falls.

That’s according to the results of a new study published today.

About 60,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year.

Some of them could be helped by virtual reality, a computer-created environment that can be displayed in a visor or special room called a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE).

Researchers say they have now developed a novel virtual reality-based training system that allows people living with Parkinson’s disease to improve their balance and muscle control in a safe environment.

As they walk on a treadmill, participants practice stepping over virtual objects that appear in the virtual reality environment. Success in one round means the objects become larger in the next.

“We set out to demonstrate the effectiveness of an advanced CAVE system as a rehabilitation tool that improves mobility and obstacle negotiation in people with [Parkinson’s],” K. Bo Foreman, PT, PhD, an associate professor and director of the Motion Analysis Core Facility at the University of Utah, told Healthline.

The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include stiff muscles, freezing (brief inability to move), and an impaired sense of balance that vastly increases the risk of falling.

According to one study, about half of all people with Parkinson’s disease will experience a fall in any three-month period.

“Parkinson’s is what we call a ‘movement disorder,’ but it’s much more than that. The cardinal symptoms are resting tremor, stiffness or rigidity, and slowness of movement. For many people, it brings walking and balance problems,” Dr. Rachel Dolhun, a movement disorder specialist and vice president of Medical Communications at the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, told Healthline.

Dolhun said Parkinson’s disease affects balance in several ways.

“It could be a difficulty with swinging the arm. Many people will keep their arm stuck to their side and not swing it very much when they walk and that could be one arm on one side. They might shuffle or unintentionally drag their feet when they walk,” she said. “They may also sort of turn in multiple steps rather than pivot on their heel.”

The new virtual reality training research involved 10 Parkinson’s patients navigating virtual obstacles over three 30-minute sessions per week in a CAVE.

After six weeks, researchers said all participants significantly improved their balance, ability to negotiate obstacles of different sizes, and had more range of motion in their ankles and hips.

Researchers hope to eventually adapt this system for virtual reality visors, making it more available and easier to implement for clinical use.

“While the CAVE allowed research subjects to interact with the virtual environment using their own limbs, head mounted displays only use the visual limbs of avatars to interact with the virtual environment,” Foreman said. “As the technology progresses, we hope they’ll be able to interact using their own limbs through augmented reality. We’re working on this now.”

It’s widely accepted that physical exercise can improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, such as tremors, gait disturbances, and postural instability.

A 2018 study confirmed this.

“Exercise is critical for all aspects of health but even more so in Parkinson’s. Not only can it help with general well-being, but it also helps a lot with the symptoms of [Parkinson’s]. It can improve coordination and fitness, but it can also really help with walking and balance,” said Dolhun.

She emphasized, “This is very important because the medications and other treatments for Parkinson’s don’t get at those symptoms as well as we’d like. So exercise and physical therapy are really cornerstones of symptom management.”

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, the most effective treatment for symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is a drug called levodopa.

However, levodopa can make patients nauseous, so it’s combined with carbidopa to prevent this.

Adding carbidopa also slows the conversion of levodopa into dopamine, which allows more of it to enter the brain. This mean a smaller dose of levodopa is needed to treat symptoms.

According to Dolhun, another major problem that can occur with levodopa use is “dyskinesia, which is uncontrolled movement.”

“But that’s related to taking levodopa for long periods, although it’s also related to having [Parkinson’s] for a long time,” she explained. “There are ways to minimize this risk, such as taking the lowest effective dose possible.”

“There’s a phobia around levodopa because of dyskinesia,” Dolhun added. “I strongly recommend people take the medication when they need it, but work with their doctors to use the lowest dose effective for their symptoms.”

For most patients, tremors are the trademark symptom of Parkinson’s disease.

But there are lesser-known symptoms that, if recognized, could get you or a loved one early treatment that significantly improves quality of life.

“The most common symptoms that bring people to diagnosis are the movement symptoms, like tremors, stiffness, and slowness of movement,” said Dolhun. “Not everyone with [Parkinson’s] has a tremor, but about 75 percent of people do.”

She said lesser-known symptoms can include “a history of constipation years before diagnosis or depression, and even an impaired sense of smell.”

“There’s also a sleep behavior disorder that increases risk of [Parkinson’s] called REM sleep behavior disorder. But this doesn’t mean if someone has one of these symptoms that it’s due to [Parkinson’s],” she said.

Parkinson’s disease is a brain-based movement disorder characterized by tremors and difficulty walking or maintaining balance.

New research shows that by using a virtual reality training system, people living with Parkinson’s disease can improve their ability to get around, reducing the risk of dangerous falls.

Exercise is a cornerstone of treatment for Parkinson’s disease because medications and other treatments for the disease don’t get at those symptoms as well as doctors would like.

Exercise also increases well-being and helps maintain general health.

Although tremors are the best-known symptom of Parkinson’s disease, there are others that can begin years before diagnosis, including loss of smell, constipation, and sleep problems.