To the beat: Music-based movement therapy offers relief in Parkinson’s disease

The prevalence of Parkinson’s disease is on the rise but current treatment options are still limited. Could music-based movement therapies alleviate symptoms of this debilitating disease?

This post is also available in Dutch.

“The power of music to integrate and cure … is quite fundamental. It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.” – Oliver Sacks

According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of Parkinson’s disease has increased by 81% since the year 2000, reflecting the growing need for treatment options. If you know someone who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, chances are that you have witnessed the physical difficulties they experience in everyday life, from tremors to difficulties in keeping balance which often has a devastating impact on their quality of life.

Parkinson symptoms

Patients often experience motor symptoms such as tremors or spasms, muscle stiffness, slowness of movements, or impaired balance. They also sometimes feel like their feet are stuck to the floor; an impairment called “freezing of gait”. These symptoms often lead to falls, loss of independence, depression, and a reduced quality of life.

In his book “Awakenings” (1973), renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks described the benefits of music on some of his patients with Encephalitis Lethargica, a disease with Parkinson-like symptoms that affected a large portion of the worldwide population in the 1920s. In one of his patients, Sacks recounts how music helped with her symptoms, allowing her to initiate movements more easily and less rigidly. In line with this example, recent research also suggests that music-based movement therapies might help alleviate many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

Improving symptoms through music-based movement therapy

Parkinson’s symptoms result from the depletion of cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, in a region called the substantia nigra. Symptoms are then usually managed with the medication Levodopa which increases the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. However, this medication has negative side effects such as nausea, sleepiness, dizziness, or more serious issues like confusion, hallucinations, agitation or psychosis. In addition, symptoms sometimes worsen with prolonged treatment, raising the need for alternative therapies to be developed.

Luckily, recent research suggests that music-based movement therapy might help alleviate some of the debilitating symptoms Parkinson’s patients experience. Music-based movement therapies consist of externally cuing physical exercise through individually tailored music playlists, such as walking, marching, or dancing to music. Across multiple studies, patients experiencing a wide range of symptoms of varying severity underwent music-based movement therapy. Most of the tested symptoms showed some improvements, such as in their motor function, balance rehabilitation, freezing of gait, and walking velocity. The results indicate an improvement in mental health of patients in these musically-cued exercise groups, suggesting that encouraging these types of therapies might overall benefit patients with Parkinson’s. Hopefully, with these promising findings, moving to the beat will help these patients regain freedom of movement, and in turn, claim independence in their everyday life.


Author: Elena Markantonakis

Buddy: Maartje Koot

Editor: Judith Scholing

Translator: Lucas Geelen

Editor translation: Judith Scholing

Image from Ardian Lumi via Unsplashed

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