“Parkinson’s is very hard to diagnose. So when I finally went to a neurologist, and he said, ‘Oh, you have Parkinson’s disease,’ I was completely shocked. I miss singing every day. I can’t sing anymore. My voice doesn’t work. I have Parkinson’s disease, and it sometimes takes my words away from me.”Linda Ronstadt, Singer Songwriter
Parkinson’s Awareness Month is observed in April and is an opportunity to increase awareness about the ailment and its symptoms, as well as to support patients. Parkinson’s is a long-term disorder where the central nervous system degenerates, affecting the motor system. Motor symptoms like trembling, stiffness, and rigidity are usually associated with Parkinson’s disease. Symptoms typically occur slowly. One side is often affected first, but as Parkinson’s disease progresses, both sides are affected. Technology has improved life for people living with Parkinson’s Disease over the past decade with new wearable, monitoring, or assistive technology.
As symptoms of Parkinson’s disease change and progress, many people with the condition find themselves struggling with tasks they once performed with ease. But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when finding solutions to these daily dilemmas and frustrations. Existing technology and inspiring innovations are helping people living with Parkinson’s disease manage symptoms now—and create hope for the future. Here are a few of the most exciting and innovative technologies showing real promise.
Technology to support gripping – With Parkinson’s disease comes many motor symptoms, including tremors, rigid muscles, and instability. Enter PopSockets, an accessory for a phone that offers a secure grip, easy mounting options, and a built-in stand. Attach one to the back of any mobile device to more easily text, talk, take photos or use Parkinson’s disease apps.
Technology to assist with typing – BigBlu Kinderboard is a specially designed keyboard for Parkinson’s patients with large keys. This is a wireless keyboard that has large keys. It is a suitable typing device for Parkinson’s patients as the bold, large numbers and letters make it easy to type. The size of this keyboard is more than a regular keyboard because of the large keys. Vision board keyboard is a large keys keyboard in black color, and the letters are painted white. The big Track-Ball mouse is the biggest trackball mouse you will ever see. This mouse is designed for Parkinson’s patients who have trouble using a regular mouse. The left and right clicks are placed behind the trackball so that you can avoid wrong clicks. You can set the speed to use it more conveniently.
Technology to assist with speaking – Many people with Parkinson’s disease experience speech-related symptoms, such as stuttering and a much lower speaking volume. It’s also common to not produce clear speech regularly and feel like your speech is either extremely slow or very fast. SpeechVive is an in-ear device that helps people speak louder and more clearly, especially in busy places with background noise. SpeechVive looks exactly like a hearing aid and sits discretely in the ear. It works by playing an inoffensive background sound in the ear as they speak and as they hear the stimuli, they naturally, speak up louder and with more articulation. Then, as they stop talking, the background noise immediately turns off.
Technology to assist with swallowing – Trouble swallowing is a common problem for people with Parkinson’s disease, occurring in up to 80 percent of cases. Swallowing problems can lead to drooling, increased risk of pneumonia, and difficulty eating. One of the best ways to improve swallowing is to swallow more at home as an exercise. The problem is that most people with Parkinson’s Disease, their caregivers, or healthcare providers are usually unaware of the presence of dysphagia until later stages when the disease progresses and dysphagia gets more complicated. True Angle, a Canadian company, has developed a wearable device called Mobili-T®, which is composed of a wireless device that is placed under the chin and an app that provides real-time biofeedback on a mobile device. The device’s beauty is that it allows the patient to perform these swallowing exercises at home.
Technology to assist with walking – About one-third of people with Parkinson’s disease experience freezing episodes—sudden, short blocks of movement that primarily occur while trying to walk. Visual cues have been shown to help trigger movement to prevent and overcome freezing. LaserCane, for example, projects red or green laser lines on the ground in front of you, encouraging you to take longer steps and steadying your gait. PathFinder is truly among the next generation of assistive devices. It’s a simple device that attaches to the toes of shoes and provides visual cues in the form of green laser lines, which are helpful to people who feel unsteady on their feet. It marks out each step, so even people with a freezing gait can move with confidence. The lasers can be adjusted manually, so they match the natural length of the person’s steps. Currently, the PathFinder is only available in Europe, but the company will ship anywhere in the world. It retails for around $460. Although it may look like a simple back brace, Calibrace is more than a simple assistive device. It’s improved posture and balance long-term instead of just functioning as a temporary measure. It’s designed for people experiencing neuromuscular disorders, including those from Parkinson’s disease.
Technology to assist with eating – For the millions of people with hand tremors and irregular hand movements caused by Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor, spinal cord injuries, or just old age, using utensils can turn an enjoyable meal into a frustrating experience. Eatwell is a set of tableware created by a young designer named Sha Yao. Although it seems like a standard set of flatware and dishes, Yao designed it specifically for people with cognitive, motor, and physical impairments. The dishes are made of bright colors, which have been proven to stimulate the appetite, and are slanted on the bottom to allow for easier scooping of food. The spoons match the curve of the bowl and plate exactly and feature a curved shank to make them easier to grip and a special head that won’t move even if jarred by hand tremors. All the dishes are equipped with anti-tip features, including a secure, rubberized base. Liftware Steady and Liftware Level are specialized eating utensils consisting of a handle and a detachable utensil head (available in a soup spoon, normal spoon, fork, or spork options). Liftware Steady’s handle has an onboard computer that detects tremors and then adjusts the utensil head to move in the opposite direction. In contrast, Liftware Level has internal motors that can change its position to accommodate larger movements such as hand or arm twists. As a result, both devices keep their utensil heads level in the face of unintentional movements.
Technology for fall protection – Technology company Tango has recently put out a new personal safety belt that effectively protects people from sudden falls. Many people with Parkinson’s disease have issues maintaining stability and often feel unbalanced or unstable. Tango Belt is a new device that fits securely around the hips and will deploy an airbag immediately before impact if it senses a fall is imminent. This protection is designed to prevent broken hips, and studies have shown that it reduces the impact of a fall by 90 percent. The technology found in the belt is highly accurate in detecting falls.
Technology to assist with sleeping – Insomnia is another common scourge of the 10 million Parkinson’s sufferers globally, more than three-quarters of whom have sleep-related symptoms, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Sleep can be affected by uncontrolled shaking which wakes patients up, while another factor is a lack of a dopamine, common in people with Parkinson’s. The medication apomorphine is normally used to replace dopamine, lessening symptoms such as shaking and stiffness. But when taken orally, the drug can cause dopamine to spike and then drop, leading to muscle spasms. A device similar to an insulin pump that delivers continuous apomorphine throughout the night could solve the problem, according to a study published in the journal Lancet Neurology.
Smartphone apps for patients with Parkinson’s disease – The smartphone is one device that can support people with Parkinson‘s disease. The apps work hand in hand with wearable sensors to track, record, and store data. The sensors are integrated into these smartphones to gather information regarding the patient‘s condition and progress. The sensors include those that track finger tapping, memory conditions through playing memory games, walking, and speaking. Below is a list of some apps specifically developed to support those with Parkinson‘s disease:
- Parkinson mPower app – This app uses sensors in the patient‘s smartphone to measure their balance, gait, and tremor. The app tracks and stores this information anytime the patient engages in certain activities specifically designed to generate these details.
- DAF Professional – This is an app for Android and iOS devices. With this speech therapy app, Parkinson‘s disease patients can slow down their speech, making it sound clearer to people around them.
- Parkinson Home Exercises – This is a video app for android and iOS devices downloadable from Google Play or Apple Store. It features Parkinson‘s-friendly exercises that target posture, flexibility, walking, and balance.
- Lift Pulse – This app for iOS and Android, initially designed for research purposes, can significantly help PD patients and caregivers. Through algorithms and sensors built in the patient‘s phone, the app recognizes, tracks, records, and calculates the extent of the individual’s hand tremor. (This app may not be available in all regions)
- Parkinson‘s EasyCall – People with PD can easily make phone calls with this smartphone app. (This link is for the Android version)
- Parkinson’s LifeKit – Parkinson’s LifeKit is a suite of tools to track dyskinesias and tremors, physical movement (including voice and central nervous system), cognitive function (including memory and mental agility), and emotional state, and medication phases.
Technology can support people with Parkinson‘s and improve their quality of life. However, a technology designed to help people with neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s disease should be more user-friendly than the average technology. Providing those with Parkinson’s disease with such technology goes a long way in enhancing their independence.