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Balance | Neurological Recovery

Understanding the Connection Between Dopamine and Parkinson's Disease

September 8th, 2023 | 5 min. read

Understanding the Connection Between Dopamine and Parkinson's Disease
Max Smith

Max Smith

Licensed Physical Therapist, PT, DPT // Dry Needling Certified // EW Motion Therapy Trussville

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Parkinson's disease is a complex neurological condition, and one of the key players in this disease is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in various brain functions. While physical therapy does not directly increase dopamine production, it is an essential component of managing Parkinson’s disease, and some activities performed in physical therapy sessions can increase dopamine over time. We consider it a privilege to work with our clients with Parkinson’s and their caregivers to develop a treatment plan that addresses their needs. Even if you decide that our physical therapy does not fit your needs, you can still learn the relationship between dopamine and Parkinson's disease, what dopamine does in the brain, how its deficiency affects daily life, ways to increase dopamine production naturally, and the role of physical therapy in managing the condition. 


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What is dopamine?

Dopamine is a chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, in the brain. It communicates between nerve cells, transmitting signals that control various bodily functions. One of its primary functions is to regulate movement, emotions, and pleasure responses. In simpler terms, dopamine helps us feel motivated, happy, and in control of our bodies.


Dopamine performs several essential functions in the brain, including:


  1. Movement regulation: Dopamine is closely associated with the brain's motor control center. It helps coordinate and fine-tune muscle movements, allowing us to perform tasks with precision and fluidity.
  2. Emotional regulation: Dopamine plays a significant role in mood regulation. It contributes to feelings of happiness, pleasure, and motivation. We can experience a sense of well-being and contentment when dopamine levels are balanced.
  3. Reward system: Dopamine is often called the brain's "reward chemical." It is released in response to pleasurable experiences, reinforcing behaviors that lead to these experiences. This reinforcement mechanism is crucial for learning and forming habits.


Dopamine deficiency and Parkinson's disease

Parkinson's disease is characterized by the gradual loss of dopamine-producing neurons in a region of the brain called the substantia nigra. As these neurons degenerate, dopamine levels in the brain decrease, leading to a range of debilitating symptoms, including:


  1. Tremors: Involuntary shaking of the hands, arms, legs, and face.
  2. Bradykinesia: Slowness of movement, making simple tasks like buttoning a shirt or walking challenging.
  3. Muscle rigidity: Stiffness and inflexibility in muscles, often causing pain and discomfort.
  4. Postural instability: Difficulty maintaining balance, increasing the risk of falls.
  5. Non-motor symptoms: Parkinson's disease can also affect mood, cognition, and various bodily functions, leading to depression, anxiety, and digestive issues.


Ways to increase dopamine production

While there is no cure for Parkinson's disease, there are strategies to boost dopamine production naturally and potentially alleviate some of its symptoms:


  1. Diet: Certain foods can promote dopamine production. These include foods rich in the amino acid tyrosine, a precursor to dopamine. Examples include lean meats, fish, tofu, nuts, and seeds.
  2. Exercise: Regular physical activity has been shown to increase dopamine levels. Walking, swimming, and dancing can particularly benefit individuals with Parkinson's disease.
  3. Sleep: Quality sleep is crucial for maintaining balanced dopamine levels. Establishing a consistent sleep schedule and creating a comfortable sleep environment can improve sleep quality.
  4. Stress management: Chronic stress can deplete dopamine levels. Practicing stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness can help mitigate this effect.
  5. Social interaction: Engaging in social activities and building positive relationships can stimulate dopamine release, enhancing emotional well-being.
  6. Supplements: Some supplements, such as vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and iron, may support dopamine production and function. However, it's essential to consult with a healthcare professional before adding any supplements to your routine.


The role of physical therapy in dopamine production

Physical therapy plays a crucial role in helping Parkinson's disease patients manage their symptoms and improve their overall quality of life. While physical therapy itself does not directly increase dopamine production, it indirectly contributes to enhancing dopamine function and mitigating the effects of dopamine deficiency in several ways:


  1. Exercise-induced dopamine release: Physical activity, especially aerobic exercises like walking, jogging, or cycling, stimulates dopamine release in the brain. This natural release can temporarily improve mood and reduce symptoms such as depression and anxiety often associated with Parkinson's disease.
  2. Enhanced brain plasticity: Physical therapy exercises that focus on balance, coordination, and fine motor skills can stimulate neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to adapt and reorganize. This can compensate for the loss of dopamine-producing neurons by encouraging the remaining neurons to function more efficiently.
  3. Medication management: Physical therapists work closely with other healthcare providers to ensure that medication regimens for Parkinson's patients are optimized. Medications that increase dopamine levels, such as levodopa, are commonly prescribed, and physical therapists can help monitor their effectiveness throughout the course of physical therapy.
  4. Improving mobility and function: Parkinson's disease often leads to motor symptoms like bradykinesia (slow movement) and muscle rigidity. Physical therapy focuses on improving mobility, range of motion, and muscle strength, which can counteract these symptoms and help patients move more freely.
  5. Balance and fall prevention: Parkinson's patients are at a higher risk of falls due to postural instability. Physical therapists design exercises that target balance and stability, reducing the risk of falls and injuries. This indirectly promotes a more active lifestyle, further supporting dopamine function.
  6. Encouraging consistent exercise: Parkinson's patients can benefit from regular exercise routines, including in-clinic physical therapy sessions and at-home activities. The consistency of movement can help maintain dopamine levels over time, even if it doesn't directly increase production.
  7. Educating patients: Physical therapists educate patients about the importance of staying active every day and engaging in exercise. This knowledge empowers patients to take an active role in managing their condition and maintaining their overall well-being.
  8. Social interaction: Group physical therapy sessions provide an opportunity for social interaction, which can stimulate dopamine release in the brain. The positive social support network within a therapy group can contribute to better emotional health.
  9. Stress reduction: Physical therapy often includes relaxation techniques and stress-reduction exercises. Lowering stress levels can indirectly support dopamine function, as chronic stress can deplete dopamine reserves.


While physical therapy doesn't directly increase dopamine production, it plays a crucial role in managing Parkinson's disease by improving mobility, balance, and overall function. These improvements can indirectly support dopamine function. Moreover, physical therapists collaborate with other healthcare providers to optimize medication regimens, ensuring that Parkinson's patients receive the most effective treatment to manage their condition. By combining exercise, education, and a holistic approach to wellness, physical therapy is an essential component of Parkinson's disease management that contributes to a better quality of life for patients.


Dopamine's role in Parkinson's disease is undeniable. Understanding how this neurotransmitter functions in the brain and its connection to the disease is essential for patients and their caregivers. While Parkinson's disease presents significant challenges, there are strategies to increase dopamine production naturally and improve daily life quality. Physical therapy, in particular, is a valuable tool in managing the condition, offering hope and support to those affected by this neurological disorder. At EW Motion Therapy, we encourage all our clients with Parkinson’s that the disease does not define them and they can still safely pursue their favorite activities. If you’re curious about what else physical therapy can do for you, click the button below to download our answers to 20 frequently asked questions.


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