There have been significant changes in how Parkinson's disease and physical therapy are viewed. Ten years ago, people often were not referred for physical therapy with PD until they actually fell and hurt themselves, according to Sandy Fini, MSPT, senior physical therapist, Helen Hayes Hospital Outpatient Neurology Center, West Haverstraw, N.Y.

Now, therapists such as Fini are much more aggressive in the approach to physical therapy with people with PD. She has found that initiating physical therapy earlier on, even right after diagnosis, leads to better long term results.

She finds in her work that early physical therapy can greatly slow atrophy and weakness - two hallmarks of the disease. Physical therapy also fights the slow decreased range of motion that the disease can cause.

PT has been shown to actually have a positive effect on slowing the disease. According to some research, patients who undergo PT early after diagnosis show improvement in the common two or six minute walk test for PD patients, as well as the Functional Reach Test and the Timed Up and Go Test.

She said that the later the patient waits to start therapy, the longer it will take to make changes. Exercise in general delays aging effects, and in PD patients, it also helps to slow the progression of the disease.

Fini noted that physical therapy and activity also can have strong mental benefits. Those who start exercising and getting PT soon after diagnosis often score lower for depression.