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Art Therapy: A Technique That May Improve Parkinson’s Symptoms

Art therapy is a technique that has been applied to improve numerous varied conditions. It has been demonstrated to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve dexterity.

It’s one of a number of complementary therapies, from occupational, speech, and physical therapy; to boxing, singing, and making art, that has been demonstrated to be effective in helping people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) both improve physical condition and increase happiness.

Parkinson’s disease is a chronic, neurodegenerative condition known to impair motor and non-motor function including interference with visuospatial function. Visuospatial refers to the loss of orientation in space, perception of motion, and identification of targets.1,2

Complementary therapies

Parkinson’s is generally characterized by its motor symptoms. PD treatment, especially in the early stages, is usually with medications that replace dopamine to ease and restore motor function. But medications may become less effective as the disease progresses.

Complementary therapies offer an alternative approach to improving motor and non-motor symptoms. A multidisciplinary approach to treating PD which includes occupation therapy, physical therapy, and counseling and has been demonstrated to be most effective.1,2

The incidence of PD is rising as the overall population ages. Besides physical muscular limitations, the impact of the condition can include loss of independence, mood disorders, and cognitive impairment.3

Art therapy for Parkinson's

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is a mental health discipline, facilitated by a credentialed art therapist, who uses various art forms and materials to engage in the creative process as a way to explore feelings, increase self-esteem and develop social skills.

Its many goals include improving physical functioning and well-being. Projects can include the use of oil or watercolor paints, pastels, clay, and other media based on the project and or physical limitations of the individual in therapy.1,4

Making art involves many neurologic mechanisms some of which may be impaired in people with Parkinson’s.2 Difficulty with hand-eye coordination, and perception of objects, among other symptoms, are indicators of visuospatial deterioration. The benefit of art therapy in treating PD is being investigated in a number of settings around the world.

Supporting research

The ExplorArtPD study at NYU Langone Health in New York City is evaluating the role of art therapy in improving visuospatial function and gait in people with PD. The exact cause of Parkinson’s and its associated visuospatial dysfunction is not known. Researchers are seeking to identify both the neural components that cause visuospatial impairment and any potential targeted treatments.1,2

Other studies have looked at working with clay as an art material because of its ease of interactive use, tactile qualities, and effects on manual dexterity. The ExplorArtPD study reported that working in clay results in satisfaction in creating art while experiencing relaxation and emotional resolution. It can help ameliorate some of the physical symptoms of Parkinson’s including muscle rigidity, tremors, and fatigue.3

What are the benefits?

Art therapy may be able to help restore some functional independence and improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s.1

In treating PD and other conditions it has been reported to improve mood and self-confidence, improve creativity and motor skills and general quality of life. These benefits can be intangible for some, but studies have measured specific improvements in psychosocial well-being including:2,3,5

  • Increased pleasure
  • Improved motor control
  • A sense of individuality
  • Mind-body connection
  • Strengthening concentration

The art studio offers a safe space where people find the ability to relax and shift the focus away from their disability. For those with voice impairments it permits non-verbal forms of communication. Everyone has the ability to concentrate on other forms of expression, including social and emotional connections.

Art therapy helps people with Parkinson’s better understand their emotions and express them creatively. Improvements in cognitive thought, confidence, and social interaction contribute to ongoing improvement in mental and physical well-being.2

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