Minnesota Nursing magazine

Corjena Cheung and yoga people

Stretching the symptoms away

Can yoga help patients manage Parkinson’s disease?
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by: 
Brett Stursa

Without a cure, people with Parkinson’s disease can only treat their symptoms.

A School of Nursing researcher is investigating if yoga can provide relief and help people manage their disease, which is a neurodegenerative condition that causes tremors and other uncontrolled movements.

As a nurse, Assistant Professor Corjena Cheung, PhD, RN, FGSA, is constantly exploring options she can give patients that don’t always involve medication. She naturally turns to integrative therapies, like yoga, as one of those options. “Growing up in Hong Kong, I was familiar with both Western and Chinese medicine and experienced how the dual system worked,” said Cheung. “I’m interested in how this ancient philosophy can be used for treatment.”

Cheung knows that without research it’s hard for health care providers to recommend the use of integrative therapies. “We need to have the research to provide the science foundation,” said Cheung.

Previously she examined using yoga to manage knee osteoarthritis symptoms in older adults. Her research showed yoga significantly improved joint pain, stiffness and the quality of life of those with osteoarthritis while reducing their sleep disturbance.

“Then I thought, if it worked on osteoarthritis, a musculoskeletal condition, perhaps it could help with a neurodegenerative condition like Parkinson’s,” said Cheung.

Her current feasibility study is explaining the effect of a 12-week Hatha yoga program on people with Parkinson’s disease. She suspects that, much like it did for people with osteoarthritis, yoga will improve motor function and psychological well-being of people with Parkinson’s disease. She is most interested in learning whether those participating in the yoga program will have a decrease in oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress is toxic to the body and has been shown to play a role in the progression of Parkinson’s disease. Typically, the body can protect against oxidative stress through the production of antioxidants. However, people with Parkinson’s disease have lower levels of antioxidants. While yoga has been shown to improve antioxidant levels in healthy people, little research has been conducted on how it affects the levels in people with Parkinson’s disease.

“This is a very motivated group of people who are willing to do whatever they can to stop the disease progression.”
– Assistant Professor Corjena Cheung, PhD, RN, FGSA

The yoga program Cheung developed is customized for people with Parkinson’s disease. Props are important, poses are held for shorter lengths of time and transitions are minimized.

Jerri Smith, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease six years ago, said she came to love going to the classes. “I find that my mind is much calmer after the class, and my muscles are less painful,” she said.

A biomechanical assessment was conducted on participants before and after the 12-week yoga program.
A biomechanical assessment was conducted on participants before and after the 12-week yoga program.

Cheung used a randomized controlled trial design with two groups; 10 people received treatment and 10 people were a waitlisted control group.

Blood samples and biomechanical assessments were collected before the yoga program and after. Analysis of the data will take place later this year. The preliminary study will support testing the effects of yoga for Parkinson’s disease management in a larger sample.

“I have found Parkinson’s patients are so motivated and willing to share,” said Cheung. “This is a very motivated group of people who are willing to do whatever they can to stop the disease progression.”

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