Massage and Parkinson�s Disease: A Few Lessons Learned

By John Slavin, PhD, LMT
May 29, 2009

Massage and Parkinson�s Disease: A Few Lessons Learned

By John Slavin, PhD, LMT
May 29, 2009

Over the past few months of tracking the progress of a Parkinson's client, I have watched him make remarkable progress, both physically and mentally. As a researcher and a therapist, I am used to tracking and recording clinical findings, but what I learned from him really made me stop and think.

He showed up one day for a clinical trial on the effects of massage on Parkinson's disease. He was stooped over, a common trait of the disease, and he had a significant shuffle to his gait. However, what struck me the most was the sadness in his eyes. Parkinson's causes the facial muscles to go into a fixated state so emotions can't be judged fairly. Anyone who remembers the photos of the late Pope John Paul II, who also suffered from Parkinson's, particularly those photos taken toward the end of his life, knows this look. It was difficult to understand him when he spoke, as he struggled to communicate, so his wife would convey most of the information I needed. She never once hesitated to try any treatment I suggested; her faith in our ability to help her husband was remarkably strong.

It was not long after we started his therapy sessions that I received a call from her. She was ecstatic! She said she could not believe what a huge impact this treatment was having on her husband: He slept better, was more comfortable, needed less medication, was not as sensitive to the cold, gained some weight and was walking better. He also gained some range of motion in his thoracic spine. All of this occurred over a period of just a few months. I was not expecting this dramatic result and further research definitely is needed, but these preliminary findings were, to say the least, very encouraging!

He was being treated as part of a multidisciplinary approach. The medical doctors who handled his medications and the physical therapists in charge of his exercises had done a fabulous job, as I was quick to remind his wife. However, she swore it was my team of therapists that made the largest contribution to her husband's remarkable progress. That statement flattered me and caused me to rethink my position on health care, particularly the atmosphere. We each used our own God-given talents and medical knowledge to treat him, so why did one approach seem to work so well when others did not? To say it happened because we cared would be wrong. To say that would mean others did not care, which was not the case. I know the other health care workers; along with being excellent doctors, nurses, and physical therapists, they also are excellent human beings who care deeply about their patients. However, I do feel they are constrained by the current health care system's attitude toward patient care. What really made the difference in this particular patient's progress was not some new technique we tested, but the unique, personalized approach we used.

As massage therapists, we are so blessed to be able to work in such peaceful environments. I have worked in every location a therapist possibly can, from medical doctors' offices to spas and everything in between, from beaches to bedrooms, as well as the most clinical hospital settings you can imagine. One thing I have learned is that sterility kills the human spirit. I don't mean sterility in the sense of cleanliness. I mean the sterility one feels in a doctor's clinic with no personality, when everything is so fake and manufactured. Who among us can honestly say they are comfortable in a doctor's clinic or hospital? They're just not designed to be comfortable (although times are changing) and this is not conducive to the healing process. It's when humanity is at its weakest that the human needs to feel the most at home. We associate clinics and hospitals with death and disease, and unless you're a health care worker, the more time you spend in that environment, the worse you tend to get.

There is a part of your subconscious mind that knows healthy people do not frequent doctors. It's now a proven fact that patients recover more quickly and with fewer complications when they are treated at home, and this is one of the major reasons for the dramatic shift toward home health care in recent years. It's my theory that the reason we were so successful when others were not was not so much because of what we DID do as what we did NOT do.

We did NOT:

  • treat the client like a casualty of this disease;
  • stick him in an open gown and make him wait in three different rooms for an hour or more;
  • use fancy medical terms or speak over his head;
  • ask to see his insurance card before treatment; or
  • rush out of the room as soon as treatment ended, never answering his questions.


  • treat him as a unique individual, deserving of our time and respect;
  • treat him with love and empathy, realizing the golden rule is never more important than at times like this; and
  • focus our attention on making him more productive and happy in his day-to-day life.

By treating him with compassion and allowing him see every life has purpose, and health care is not something one does only when sick, I believe he realized subconsciously that hospitals and clinics are not always places one goes to die. Instead, he viewed our clinic and its peaceful spa ambiance as his home away from home, and his therapists as part of his extended family. I assure you we all felt the same way about him and his lovely wife. When he showed up for a treatment, he did not see it as treatment, but as a day out with friends and family. This gave him hope, and I saw it that day in his eyes - we all did. It has been said that if you don't want to work, find something you love doing and you will never work another day in your life. I say this applies equally to our current health care crisis: Find a health care team you love and you will never feel sick again.