As disease progresses, Inova Loudoun therapists see every Parkinson’s symptom in the book

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"They said I walked really bad. I was leaning to my left. I went to six doctors till I believed I had Parkinson’s."

LANSDOWNE, Va. (WDVM) — Joyce Radcliff says she was about 60 years old when her children noticed a change in her walk.

“They said I walked really bad. I was leaning to my left,” Radcliff said. “And so I went to the doctor. He said I had Parkinson’s, and I didn’t believe him. I went to six doctors till I believed I had Parkinson’s.”

Radcliff is one of dozens of Parkinson’s patients who attend speech and physical therapy sessions at Inova Loudoun Hospital. Therapists work with the group on widening their mouths, making noises for extended periods of time and moving their bodies in every direction, all in an effort to moderate the disease’s symptoms as they progress.

The brain produces less dopamine as Parkinson’s disease progresses, a neurotransmitter that regulates movement, learning and responses.

“I think the first thing you think about when you look at Parkinson’s is the tremors,” said Cathy Christopher, director of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Inova Loudoun. “You look at Michael J. Fox, and you notice tremors and uncoordinated movement.”

Christopher said patients may experience gait abnormalities, in which their walking and balance are off. Patients may fall on one side, or trip more often.

Speech language pathologist Margie Comerford leads the speech therapy session, or “conversation group,” at Inova Loudoun Hospital. She also sees patients one-on-one to personalize their treatment based on their symptoms.

“Most of the time, we see it affect the voice in terms of the volume,” Comerford said. “They begin to speak softer. We can also see that it affects their articulation, because they’re not using their mouth as much. They don’t have as much facial expression, so meaning is not conveyed when they can’t raise their eyebrows or scrunch them down.”

Occupational therapist Amy Morgenthal works down the hallway, and adapts her exercises to her client’s symptoms.

“Individuals with Parkinson’s may experience slowness of movement,” Morgenthal said. “They might also experience small movements. Some individuals have tremors oftentimes in one hand or both hands, so all these things affect activities of daily living.”

“While it is a progressive disorder, the changes vary from individual to individual. And that’s why starting this program early…very important research shows that it slows disease progression.”

Parkinson’s may be difficult to diagnose because of the array of symptoms associated with it. The Mayo Clinic encourages anyone experiencing just one symptom to consult his or her doctor.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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