What is Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. Symptoms start gradually, sometimes starting with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. Tremors are common, but the disorder also commonly causes stiffness or slowing of movement. In the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, your face may show little or no expression. Your arms may not swing when you walk. Your speech may become soft or slurred. Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsen as your condition progresses over time. Although Parkinson’s disease can’t be cured, medications might significantly improve your symptoms. Occasionally, your doctor may suggest surgery to regulate certain regions of your brain and improve your symptoms.
What Causes Parkinson’s Disease?
In Parkinson’s disease, certain nerve cells (neurons) in the brain gradually break down or die. Many of the symptoms are due to a loss of neurons that produce a chemical messenger in your brain called dopamine. When dopamine levels decrease, it causes abnormal brain activity, leading to symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, but several factors appear to play a role, including:
- Your genes. Researchers have identified specific genetic mutations that can cause Parkinson’s disease. However, these are uncommon except in rare cases with many family members affected.
- Environmental triggers. Exposure to certain toxins or environmental factors may increase the risk of later Parkinson’s disease, but the risk is relatively small.
- The aging process. Young adults rarely experience Parkinson’s disease. It ordinarily begins in middle or late life, and the risk increases with age. People usually develop the disease around age 60 or older.
What are the Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s signs and symptoms can be different for everyone. Early signs may be mild and go unnoticed. Symptoms often begin on one side of your body and usually remain worse on that side, even after symptoms begin to affect both sides.
Parkinson’s signs and symptoms may include:
- Tremor. A tremor, or shaking, usually begins in a limb, often your hand or fingers. You may rub your thumb and forefinger back-and-forth, known as a pill-rolling tremor. Your hand may tremble when it’s at rest.
- Slowed motion (bradykinesia). Over time, Parkinson’s disease may slow your movement, making simple tasks difficult and time-consuming. Your steps may become shorter when you walk. It may be difficult to get out of a chair. You may drag your feet as you try to walk.
- Rigid muscles. Muscle stiffness may occur in any part of your body. The stiff muscles can be painful and limit your range of motion.
- Impaired posture and balance. Your posture may become stooped, or you may have balance problems as a result of Parkinson’s disease.
- Loss of automatic movements. You may have a decreased ability to perform unconscious movements, including blinking, smiling or swinging your arms when you walk.
- Speech changes. You may speak softly, quickly, slur or hesitate before talking. Your speech may be more monotone than normal.
- Writing changes. It may become hard to write, and your writing may appear small.
How is Parkinson’s Disease Diagnosed?
Your doctor will review your medical history and conduct a neurological and physical examination to diagnose Parkinson’s disease. There are no medical tests to definitively diagnose the disease. Your doctor may recommend blood tests or brain scans to rule out other conditions.
Imaging tests, such as a CT or MRI scan of your brain, may be used to rule out other disorders. A dopamine transporter scan may be used to help detect decreased dopamine activity in the brain that is characteristic of Parkinson’s disease. Your doctor may also recommend genetic testing if you have a family history of Parkinson’s disease.
What are the Stages of Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease often progresses through five stages, with symptoms becoming more severe over several years. However, the time frame and symptoms can vary greatly among individuals. The five stages are:
Symptoms are mild and inconvenient but don’t interfere much with your daily activities. Friends, family or co-workers may notice changes in posture, walking difficulty or reduced arm swing before you do. Tremor involving the hand, foot, face or chin may occur on one side of your body. An arm or leg may feel stiff. Speech may be more soft, slurred or monotone. Handwriting may appear smaller. Facial expression can appear serious, irritable or drowsy.
Symptoms are bilateral and impairment is mild. Friends or family notice the symptoms. Daily tasks become more difficult to perform due to reduced dexterity. Walking difficulties progress. Speech problems and sleep problems may occur.
Symptoms become more severe and bodily movement slows further. Imbalance and falls are more common. Activities are significantly limited. Medications may not produce full benefit due to “wearing off” between doses.
All symptoms progress to severe states. Rigidity in muscles increases. People can still walk but may need constant support. Hallucinations, confusion and excessive daytime sleepiness may occur. 24-hour supervision is recommended.
Most people are unable to walk or stand. They require constant nursing care. Medications provide little benefit. Death is usually caused by another illness such as pneumonia, not by Parkinson’s disease itself.
Is Parkinson’s a Progressive Disease?
Yes, Parkinson’s is a progressive disease meaning the symptoms tend to worsen over time. The progression of symptoms is often classified by Hoehn and Yahr stages, which range from 1-5 with 5 being the most severe. The time frame varies, but people often progress through the stages over 10-20 years. Treatments aim to slow the worsening of symptoms.
What Medications are Used to Treat Parkinson’s?
The main medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease include:
The cornerstone treatment is a combination of carbidopa-levodopa (Sinemet, Parcopa, Atamet, others). Levodopa is converted to dopamine in the brain, helping replace the dopamine loss caused by Parkinson’s.
These medications act like dopamine in the brain and cause a similar but weaker response (bromocriptine, ropinirole, pramipexole, rotigotine).
These medications help reduce the breakdown of dopamine (selegiline, rasagiline).
Catechol O-methyltransferase (COMT) inhibitors
COMT inhibitors help extend the effect of levodopa therapy (entacapone, tolcapone).
These medications help reduce tremor and muscle stiffness (trihexyphenidyl, benztropine).
The medications help manage symptoms, especially early in the disease, but their effectiveness decreases over time. Treatment may involve various combinations of medications to optimize symptom control.
What is Deep Brain Stimulation?
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a surgical procedure used to treat Parkinson’s symptoms that no longer respond adequately to medications. Electrodes are implanted into the brain and connected to a small generator device under the skin in the chest. Electrical signals from the generator regulate abnormal impulses and help control movement. DBS can significantly improve motor function in some people and reduce the need for dopaminergic medications.
What Other Therapies Help Parkinson’s Symptoms?
Along with medications and DBS, other therapies and lifestyle changes can help manage Parkinson’s disease:
- Exercise: Regular aerobic exercise and resistance training helps symptoms.
- Physical therapy: Can help maintain flexibility, mobility and balance.
- Occupational therapy: Focuses on adapting the home environment and learning skills to retain independence.
- Speech therapy: Can improve voice volume and clarity.
- Diet: Eating foods high in fiber and drinking enough fluids helps constipation.
- Supplements: Vitamin D, CoQ10 and creatine may provide some benefit.
- Support groups and counseling: Can help cope with emotional and social challenges.
A multidisciplinary team approach with several types of therapies tailored to each person’s needs is recommended.
What are the Complications of Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease can lead to a variety of complications that can be managed with treatment adjustments and additional care:
- Swallowing problems (dysphagia)
- Chewing and eating problems
- Speech and communication difficulties
- Urinary problems or incontinence
- Sleep disturbances
- Skin problems
- Mental health issues such as depression or dementia
- Blood pressure changes
Careful monitoring and preventive measures are important to avoid complications and maintain the best quality of life possible.
What are the Pros and Cons of Parkinson’s Medications?
- Improve movement symptoms like tremor, rigidity and slowness
- Allow people to maintain independence longer
- May slow the progression of disease
- Wide variety available to customize treatment
- Generally effective early in disease
- Medications can lose effectiveness over time
- Can cause disruptive involuntary movements (dyskinesias)
- Frequent doses may be required
- Side effects like nausea, dizziness, confusion
- Increased risk of compulsive behaviors
Overall, the benefits of Parkinson’s medications often outweigh the risks, especially in the early stages. Work closely with your doctor to find the optimal treatments for your needs.
What is the Prognosis for Parkinson’s Disease?
The prognosis for Parkinson’s disease varies greatly from person to person depending on multiple factors. With treatment, most people with Parkinson’s can live a productive and fulfilling life for years after diagnosis. The disease itself is not fatal, but complications can be serious.
Life expectancy for people with Parkinson’s is slightly less than for people without the disease. However, many people live 20 years or more after diagnosis. Young-onset Parkinson’s diagnosed before age 50 may progress faster but life expectancy is still favorable. Parkinson’s typically progresses slowly, with worsening of symptoms over many years. Supportive care in the advanced stages can maximize quality of life. With proactive treatment, people can manage symptoms well for long periods.
How does Parkinson’s Disease Affect Daily Life?
Parkinson’s disease can profoundly impact daily life as symptoms like tremor and slowed movement make routine tasks more challenging. Effects may include:
Getting dressed, bathing, grooming and other daily activities may require more time and effort. Adaptive devices and safety equipment can help.
Parkinson’s symptoms can interfere with job duties. Flexible schedules, assistive technology and work adaptations may be needed.
Driving may eventually become difficult or unsafe. Planning ahead for transportation needs is important.
Walking and Balance Problems
Falls are a risk. Canes, walkers and wheelchairs can help prevent falls. Removing tripping hazards at home is vital.
Eating and Swallowing Issues
Chewing difficulties and swallowing problems can make eating a challenge. Diet modifications or feeding tubes may be an option.
Impaired speech and handwriting can affect communication. Devices like tablets can supplement talking.
Parkinson’s can impair sleep. Sleep aids, good sleep hygiene practices and daytime naps help.
Some people experience depression, anxiety, stress or apathy due to Parkinson’s disease. Counseling and medication can help.
Parkinson’s can limit social activities. Reaching out to friends, family and support groups reduces isolation.
What are 10 Tips for Living Well with Parkinson’s?
Here are 10 tips to help people live well with Parkinson’s disease:
- Learn as much as you can about Parkinson’s and get involved in your treatment plan.
- Find a specialist, like a neurologist or movement disorder expert, to guide your care.
- Take medications correctly and at the right times to optimize control of symptoms.
- Exercise regularly through aerobics, stretching, balance and resistance training.
- Undergo physical, occupational and speech therapies to improve function.
- Eat a healthy diet high in fiber to prevent constipation.
- Practice good sleep habits and get enough rest.
- Make home adaptations to improve safety and prevent falls.
- Developrelaxation techniques and stay socially engaged.
- Join a support group to connect with others facing similar challenges.
With proper management of Parkinson’s disease, people can enjoy many years of purposeful and rewarding living.
Living with Parkinson’s disease poses many challenges, but with comprehensive treatment and self-care people can thrive. Early diagnosis and optimized use of medications help control symptoms for many years. Adding therapies like exercise, physical therapy and surgery allow people to function at a high level. Home adaptations and mobility aids prevent falls and injuries. While Parkinson’s is progressive, people can take charge of their health and live full, meaningful lives. With proactive treatment, social support, and positive thinking, Parkinson’s does not have to stop you from enjoying what’s important.