Muhammad Ali and Parkinson’s: The Final Bout


There’s not much left to say about the passing of one of our countries greatest athletes. Nicknamed fittingly as “The Greatest,” Ali was a revolutionary both in and out of the ring. His speed and agility in the ring was unmatched, as well as his bravado and honesty outside of the ring. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984, the disease would later become his toughest and most trying opponent up until his death earlier this week. An estimated seven to ten million people live with Parkinson’s so it’s important to be able to spot the symptoms and to know the right steps to take when treating the disease.

What to Look For in Patients 

Shaky Head and Hands – Most of the world didn’t know just how bad Ali’s Parkinson’s had gotten until the 1996 Olympic Games. It came as a huge surprise when Ali emerged holding the Olympic Torch and lit the cauldron to open the games. Visibly in pain and his right hand quivering, Ali showed the world just how far the disease had gotten.

Loss of Smell – One of the least known symptoms, a loss of smell can be an early warning sign of Parkinson’s. Use strong smelling foods, (garlic, oranges) to gauge you or your loved one’s sense of smell.

Trouble Moving or Walking – It’s one thing to be stiff and sore in the morning, but if this persists throughout the day, it might be something more serious. Stiff muscles and a feeling of being “stuck to the floor” may be an early sign of Parkinson’s.

Masked Face – This was one of the most obvious symptoms that afflicted Ali, in later interviews Ali’s trademark grin was replaced with a stoic, unmoving face. Although the twinkle in his eyes still remained, it was obvious the muscle function in his face was just not there anymore.

Slurred Speech or Low Voice – Another red flag that can arise is trouble speaking. When the neurotransmitters have trouble sending signals, it can become difficult to speak clearly or project the voice.

How to Help

Exercise – Exercising can sometimes help combat early-onset Parkinson’s as well as relieve the symptoms that come with the disease. There is increasing evidence that aerobic and learning-based exercises could be neuroprotective in aging individuals and those with neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. Walking, dancing, or Yoga can greatly increase brain function and movement.

Physical Therapy – Physical Therapy usually begins after the initial diagnoses. You will want to establish a physical baseline to help gauge a patient’s future improvement or decline. A good fitness program should be established in hopes of slowing down the disease. Memory training and multitask training should also be incorporated in the PT.

Medication – Medication should also be incorporated. There a variety of medications that your patient can be prescribed, so it’s good to explore all options and find the best combination of exercise, medication, and Physical Therapy. Parkinson’s is a tough disease to combat, but with a supportive cast and hard work it can still be managed.

Author: Troy Diffenderfer

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