Deep brain stimulation and swimming
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a surgical treatment for Parkinson’s disease (PD) symptoms in which small wires are inserted deep into the brain to deliver electrical current that allows for maintenance of more normal movement. DBS is particularly helpful for those with medication-resistant tremors as well as for those who experience OFF time (periods during the day when levodopa and other drug treatments are not offering benefit), and dyskinesias (uncontrolled movements due to levodopa treatment.) For many, DBS surgery can significantly increase quality of life.
A recent article in the journal Neurology chronicled a series of people with PD who had received DBS for their PD symptoms. These people had been capable swimmers both before and after their diagnoses of PD, but then lost their ability to coordinate their swimming when their DBS systems were turned on. The authors cautioned that those newly implanted with DBS should be aware of this possibility and be very careful when initiating swimming after DBS. This issue was also covered recently in the New York Times.
It is important to note a few points in order to put this information in context. First, the majority of people who receive DBS do not lose their ability to swim and remain competent swimmers. Second, all people with PD, whether they have DBS or not should always be accompanied while swimming. PD symptoms can change suddenly, so it makes good sense to have a swimming buddy. Third, all nine people who received DBS and lost their ability to swim, nevertheless felt that the positive benefits of DBS outweighed the negative effects. Therefore, although in rare cases DBS can affect a person’s ability to swim, and it is important for those contemplating DBS and for those newly implanted to know this, DBS can still bring significant benefits that compensate for this side effect.
As always, it is important to understand how news reports such as this fit into the larger context and not to rush to judgements before understanding all of the relevant information. Always be sure to bring concerns and questions to the attention of your medical team before making decisions about treatments that may or may not be appropriate for you.