Understanding Art Therapy for Parkinson’s Disease

Sep 29, 2022

The benefits of art therapy go beyond creating beautiful masterpieces. Art therapy can help promote better mental and physical health as well. In particular, the effects of art therapy have been shown to help improve the quality of life for those affected by Parkinson’s disease (PD).

Let’s look at some of the findings in studies and how you can use art therapy to help improve your life with PD.

How Does Art Therapy Help People With Parkinson’s?

Art therapy is a mental health discipline that uses a variety of art forms and media to help people explore their feelings, manage behavior, develop social skills, and reduce anxiety through the creative process.

A growing number of people in the Parkinson’s community are exploring art to help manage their symptoms. This isn’t just a trend! Multiple studies support the use of art and other creative therapies to improve the management of Parkinson’s disease.

Two artists with Parkinson's sculpting in a class

Studies on Art Therapy for Parkinson’s Disease

Findings at the 34th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology show that incorporating art therapy into the standard Parkinson’s disease treatment can benefit patients physically, mentally, and neurologically.

The study involved 50 people living with Parkinson’s disease. As part of the study, some participants were randomly assigned to receive art therapy, such as sculpting or drawing, in addition to regular drug therapy for 12 months.

Individuals who attended art therapy regularly throughout the year-long study exhibited the following improvements in their mental health:

  • Improved mood
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Reduced fear intensity
  • Better cognitive scores

Physically, the patients exhibited a decrease in their tremors. Plus, the researchers found a notable difference in disease progression rates between patients who had art therapy and those who did not.

Painter with Parkinson's working in modern oil canvas

Another study focusing on clay art therapy shows similar results. Findings published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine indicated that clay art therapy positively affected patients’ mental and physical conditions.

Study participants attended 16 sessions of clay art therapy over eight weeks. The researchers noted that squeezing, rolling, and manipulating the clay helped stimulate participants’ hand dexterity, which may help maintain motor skills. They also found significant improvements in patients’ depression scores and overall quality of life.

Another study also reports improvements in motor skills, particularly regarding gait or walking patterns, among mild to moderately impaired Parkinson’s patients. While the improvement in motor function was small, findings suggested that improvements in visuospatial function through art therapy may have contributed to patients’ perception of extrapersonal space.

Can Art Therapy Help With Vision Issues?

Artist with Parkinson's testing his vision with a pencil

Eye and vision issues are common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Unfortunately, these issues are also factors that may discourage some people with PD from trying art therapy. However, art therapy may help you with that as well.

According to findings published in the journal Parkinsonism & Related Disorders, art therapy can improve eye tracking or movements. The therapy also helped improve their overall visual-cognitive skills.

At the beginning of the study, the participants exhibited abnormal visual-cognitive functions and eye movements. After regular art therapy, though, the researchers saw an improved performance on various visual and eye-tracking tests — including functional MRI (fMRI) scans.

The scans showed improvements in functional connectivity within areas of the brain that focus your attention and help modulate activity in your brain’s visual areas.

Can Music Therapy Help With Motor Symptoms?

Woman with Parkinson's playing music on the piano

Art comes in many different forms, including music. Moreover, studies have explored the potential benefits of music therapy programs for patients with Parkinson’s. A review of over 281 research articles confirms the positive effects of music therapy on various aspects. These range from memory and language to speech information processing and respiratory muscle strength.

One benefit of music therapy for people with Parkinson’s that may surprise you is improving motor skills and function. This is because sounds and music help engage your multisensory and motor network.

In particular, rhythmic auditory cues and stimulation are effective in correcting gait or walking patterns among those with Parkinson’s. Aside from that, music therapy also proves to be effective in helping Parkinson’s patients improve their gait speed, prevent freezing (the involuntary inability to move), and boost balance.

One experimental study noted that singing at different tempos, whether out loud or in your mind, can help lessen gait variability, especially for older people with Parkinson’s. The findings also suggest that music therapy for gait training may help reduce falls due to gait stability problems.

Is Painting Good for People With Parkinson’s?

Artist with Parkinson's smiling in front of paintings

Painting is one of the best avenues of art therapy you can explore as someone with Parkinson’s. It doesn’t matter whether it’s been years since you last held a paintbrush or if you’ve never tried it.

Painting is shown to help individuals with Parkinson’s manage their tremors better. Painting and art therapy, in general, are relaxing activities that help improve stress and anxiety, both of which can exacerbate Parkinson’s tremors. Calming your emotions and lowering your stress while painting can effectively reduce tremors.

Additionally, painting therapy can help bring down the likelihood of freezing. The new, unfamiliar motions you make as you paint can help condition your body and make you more mindful of your actions. In addition, you can lower your risk of freezing up by not operating on autopilot.

How Can Poetry Help People Living Parkinson’s?

Woman with Parkinson's writing writing poems

For many people living with Parkinson’s disease, writing poetry can be a therapeutic and soothing activity. Putting words on paper (or on a computer screen) can help slow down the racing thoughts that often accompany the condition.

In addition, poetry’s rhythmic nature can help improve motor skills and coordination. For some people, the process of writing poetry can also be a way to express emotions and connect with others who are living with the same condition.

PCLA continues to showcase the wonderful works of those living with Parkinson’s who have embraced poetry as an art form. Along with a recurring Poetry Jam event, we’ve made poems available in a Poetry Book as a hard copy.

Los Angeles native Alan Ascher writes poems about Parkinson’s; since his diagnosis, he has written around 300 more. He hopes to bring happiness and joy to people through his poetry.

“That’s the beauty of words and paper; you can make people feel something they never felt before.” — Alan Ascher.

How Does Art Mentally Benefit Those Living With Parkinson’s?

Woman with Parkinson's smiling looking at art

Many of the core objectives of art therapy revolve around mental and psychological health. Art therapy is generally used to help people explore their feelings and emotions, foster self-awareness, and increase self-esteem.

Studies have shown that art therapy can help improve mood and self-confidence. It can also boost creativity and your sense of individuality and concentration.

Parkinson’s can be an isolating condition, with many patients experiencing a form of depression at some point in their struggle with the disease. Art therapy can help you in this regard in two ways.

First, it helps you get more in touch with your emotions and become able to express yourself better. Secondly, it allows you to meet people in similar situations, expand your support group, and reduce feelings of isolation.

How Does Art Socially Benefit Those Living With Parkinson’s?

Parkinson's community being social at an art event

Art therapy is generally done in groups, which helps encourage those with Parkinson’s to interact with other people and be more social. Even in solo art therapy sessions, you will still interact with your therapist, which helps reduce social isolation.

Art therapy can help individuals with Parkinson’s to better understand and express their emotions through creative visual representations. This improves your cognitive skills, which can greatly help during social interactions.

Social interaction during art therapy offers the following benefits:

  • Boost self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Enhance emotional stability
  • Improve overall quality of life
  • Practice and improve social or communication skills
  • Increased feelings of independence

Living Artistically with Parkinson’s

Living Artistically with Parkinson's Animation

PCLA’s banner event, Living Artistically with Parkinson’s, showcases fine art and has grown to include the performing arts. The event aims to promote art, advocacy, and advancement in the Parkinson’s community.

In 2022, we’re back in person for two weekends in October. Enjoy exclusive film screenings, fine art exhibitions, artist talks, and silent auction. Celebrate the innovation and magic that only art can inspire.

Proceeds from Living Artistically with Parkinson’s 2022 will establish PCLA’s Advocacy Outreach Program. You can make a difference with your support of this event!

Getting Started With Art Therapy

Though additional, larger-scale studies may be necessary to validate its benefits, art therapy offers many potential benefits for those living with PD. However, continue to follow the advice of your physician on treatments with medication, nutrition, and exercise.

If you or a loved one is interested in trying art therapy to help manage Parkinson’s disease, seek a qualified art therapist. Look for one who specializes in working with people with Parkinson’s or similar conditions. PCLA can help those living with Parkinson’s get connected to support groups as resources in the greater Los Angeles area. Feel free to reach out to us — we’d be happy to help.

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