For many patients with Parkinson’s Disease, what are known as freezing episodes, are a frustrating and all too real part of life. Roughly one-third of people with diagnosed Parkinson’s will experience a freezing episode according to the American Parkinson Disease Association.
What is Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s Disease is an autoimmune condition in which the brain cells responsible for producing dopamine are damaged and die off. Responsible for activity in the reward center of the brain, dopamine is commonly recognized as the chemical neurotransmitters which give you that winner’s high when you gamble or do something pleasurable.
Turns out dopamine also plays a critical role in helping brain cells communicate in the region of the brain called the substantia nigra. When there is not enough dopamine, brain cells are unable to send messages through neural pathways, and thus even common tasks and actions become difficult.
That’s why someone with Parkinson’s may be unable to smile, blink or move their hands at their sides when walking. Over time, damage to the motor cortex from this autoimmune deficiency leads to tremors, muscle rigidity, trouble talking, balance problems, and even behavioral issues and difficulty smelling.
What Are Freezing Episodes?
One of the most baffling symptoms with Parkinson’s Disease are freezing episodes, or when you are in the middle of doing something like walking and all of a sudden freeze and are unable to complete the action.
To give you a better idea, what this commonly looks like is someone with Parkinson’s will be walking just fine, get to a doorway and freeze, unable to walk through it. The message that brain cells are trying to communicate with one another is “walk through the doorway” or “turn right or left,” but the lack of dopamine prevents successful transmission. This symptom of freezing up can be debilitating, frustrating, and potentially even dangerous.
Freezing episodes can strike at any moment and are typically triggered by specific actions like initiating or stopping movement, stressful situations, and multi-tasking. The danger lies largely in the potential for falling and injuring oneself, especially when walking or standing and suddenly experiencing a freezing episode.
For patients with Parkinson’s and their caregivers, don’t miss these expert tips on managing freezing episodes:
Freezing Episodes When Walking
Shift weight from one leg to the other
Try marching or goose-stepping instead of walking
Start dancing or marching to music
Count in your head, sing, or hum to yourself
Imagine or define a line on the ground to “step over” (with a pencil, laser pointer, etc)
Walk a half circle to turn instead of trying to turn a corner like normal
Freezing Episodes When Eating
Try saying a word or phrase
Sing a familiar song
Listen to music and count or sing along
Drink a sip of water before taking a bite
Try another movement like raising an arm over your head
The progressive and degenerative nature of Parkinson’s increases you or your loved one’s risk of falling substantially. The National Parkinson Foundation shares that almost 40% of Parkinson’s patients experience a fall each year, many due to freezing episodes.
Make sure to fall-proof your living environment by installing railings and grab bars around stairways, porches, and bathrooms, as well as by clearing away clutter and laying down non slip tape and bath mats – learn more here. It’s important to talk to your doctor if freezing episodes (and falls) become more frequent.
They might be able to tailor your pharmacological treatment to a better type or dosing of medicine to prevent freezing episodes or write you an order for physical therapy so you can get exercise and expert knowledge for managing freezing episodes more successfully and safely.
A Parkinson’s diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it once was thought to be; in fact, many patients with Parkinson’s live successfully with the disease for decades. While advancements in research and medicine can help mitigate debilitating symptoms, simple tricks for managing freezing episodes can effectively complement treatment and make day to day living easier.