Sleep disturbance is one of the lesser-known but one of the most common symptoms in Parkinson’s disease. Using light therapy shows promise in alleviating this, without the accompanying side-effects that medications bring.


Most of us are aware of the obvious manifestations of Parkinson’s disease (PD); we readily identify and associate the tremors or the slurring of speech as symptoms of Parkinson’s. However, what is less known is that up to ninety percent of people who live with Parkinson’s also suffer from sleep disorders.

Patients with Parkinson’s have no trouble going to sleep; however, something triggers them to awaken, or that keeps waking them up, disrupting their sleep cycle. Among the identified causes are the involuntary movements that continue even while sleeping which then jerk them awake; other patients on dopamine medication (the standard drug for PD) report experiencing recurring vivid nightmares that understandably makes patients uncomfortable about sleeping.

Like those suffering from sleep disturbances, this leads to daytime somnolence or sleepiness in the morning and afternoons. We all know how bothersome—and potentially dangerous—lack of sleep can be; impaired awareness and function increases the possibility of accidents when driving vehicles, or operating heavy machinery. When a person is afflicted with Parkinson’s, this danger perhaps even multiplies, as the drowsiness now adds a complication to a person already struggling with balance and movement.

Traditionally, doctors would treat sleep problems by increasing the dosage of the anti-Parkinson’s medication; it was hoped that increasing the dopamine would reduce the myoclonic jerks during sleep. However, this has yielded little success, and at the same time, it could potentiate the drug’s side effects—hence the nightmares. So researchers are now turning to therapies used in the treatment of sleep disorders to address these symptoms.

Scientists at the Northwestern and Rush Universities are using light therapy (LT) as a possible mode of treatment. Taking advantage of the natural body clock, or circadian rhythm, they used bright and infra-red LT on patients with Parkinson’s in an attempt to re-set their sleep cycles. Patients were randomly grouped, with those in the treatment arm exposed to bright or dim-red (infra-red) therapy at prescribed intervals over the course of two weeks. The results showed that, compared to the placebo group, those who were subjected to LT experienced a significant reduction in daytime symptoms of somnolence, as well as reported improvement in the quality of sleep at night.

While admitting that further studies need to be done, the researchers believe that eventually LT can be incorporated into the treatment regimens of Parkinson’s patients, where they are not subject to more medications and their dreaded side-effects. More importantly, they will finally get that good night’s sleep.


Written By: Jay Martin, M.D.

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