Parkinson’s Disease

In 1998, star actor Michael J. Fox did something particularly brave:  he announced he had Parkinson’s Disease, which helped push the disorder into a more public view.  He suspended his acting career in 2000, and for good reason:  Parkinson’s began slowly sapping his abilities, as it has with around 53 million other people worldwide.

What is Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s Disease is a motor system disorder.  It’s a portion of the brain, the substantia nigra, experiencing the cells dying over time.  It involves the buildup of proteins in the Lewy bodies of the neurons, and is considered by some to be a part of the Dementia family of diseases.  As time goes on, more symptoms are added, and the severity of each symptom gets worse over time.

It’s symptoms are:

  • Trembling or tremors in the hands, arms, face, and / or arms
  • Stiffness of the limbs
  • bradykinesia (movement is slowed, and sometimes the muscles simple stop in place)
  • Impaired balance
  • Poor coordination
  • Inability to sit or stand upright
  • Low blood pressure
  • Digestive problems
  • Temperature Sensitivity
  • Limb sensitivity
  • Depression
  • Emotional Changes
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Constipation
  • Sleep disruptions

Of course, if you have any of these symptoms, don’t get too concerned that you have Parkinson’s – it shares symptoms with some other conditions, and it normally takes a neurological evaluation for a medical professional to properly diagnose this disorder.  Often, it’s a process of narrowing down, since the symptoms can come and go during onset of the disease, and there’s no guarantee with symptoms will appear in which order.

For a really good look at Parkinson’s Disease in action, here’s an interview with Michael J. Fox in 2009 about it:

You can see his tremors, stiffness, poor coordination, and difficulties with balance and remaining upright very easily in the video.

At the moment, it’s not fully understood what causes Parkinson’s Disease, but there are quite a few things that increase the risk:

  • Declining Estrogen Levels (in post-menopausal women)
  • Head trauma
  • Chemical exposure (certain pesticides)
  • Genetic / Family History

Parkinson’s can also be described by severity:

Mild:  At this point, the disease might be somewhat apparent to friends who notice changes in movement, and minor tremors that could be restricted to just one area of the body.

Moderate:  The disease is readily apparent to anyone who sees the person.  Muscles may freeze at times, tremors on both sides of the body, balance and coordination issues, and usually very slow movements.

Advanced:  Someone with advanced Parkinson’s cannot live alone.  Standing, or even sitting upright may be extremely difficult.   Day to day activities, such as feeding one’s self, become extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Treating Parkinson’s Disease

There is no cure for Parkinson’s at the moment.  Of course, there’s quite a bit of research happening around Parkinson’s, and there’s even a procedure for reversing the disease – in fruit flies.  It’s a long ways to human trials.  And, because Parkinson’s Disease is part of the Alzheimer’s family of diseases, it may benefit considerably from the research being done in other areas.  A cure for Huntington’s Disease, for instance, could very easily result in further research that results in a cure for Parkinson’s.

There are treatments for the symptoms of Parkinson’s, though, including lifestyle choices to improve quality of life.  If you’re diagnosed with Parkinson’s, one of your first self-care jobs is to find a medical professional that is knowledgeable about the disease, and that you feel comfortable working with.  This is going to be important to all the rest of managing this disease.

First, there’s a list of drugs used in the management of Parkinson’s symptoms, ranging from an antiviral (Amantadine) to a combination of Levodopa and Carbidopa that adjust the amount of dopamine available in the brain.  Some of the drug options, though, also come at a cost – some cause a reaction that results in uncontrolled muscle movement.

There’s also treatments such as Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) that is used in some cases where the drugs have no effect.  DBS requires electrodes to be inserted into the brain, and the brain is electrically stimulated by a programmable pulse generator.

But, there’s more than just medication to the treatment of Parkinson’s, which leads into why you want a medical professional you feel comfortable with.  Diet and exercise come into play, even early on in the disease.  Drinking 6 glasses of water per day, for instance, helps the digestion in many cases.  Your medical professional may also refer you to a dietitian who has knowledge of the disease, and is able to help you plan a diet that is both healthy, and maintainable as it gets harder to swallow with the disease’s progression.

If you don’t much care for doing housework, it might be time to start a new habit.  Simple house cleaning such as washing dishes and folding clothes have been shown to have a beneficial effect on some symptoms.  Walking and aerobic exercise also have been shown to do the same thing.

And, plan ahead.  As with any disease that causes both physical and mental degradation over time, getting things in order is a good idea.  You might want to look at our article on Dementia for more information on planning ahead – some of the same things apply to Parkinson’s disease.

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