About 1 million people in the US have Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder that ranks second to Alzheimer’s among the most common neurodegenerative diseases. While many tend to associate Parkinson’s with hand tremors, it can cause a broad range of symptoms, affecting both motor and non-motor functions.
While there is no cure, Vibhash Sharma, MD, associate professor of neurology at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Clinical Lead for the Movement Disorders Program and Clinic in the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, said it’s vital to raise awareness and education about Parkinson’s and its symptoms to help improve the lives of those affected by the disease. April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month.
“With the right treatment and support, individuals can manage their symptoms and maintain a good quality of life,” Dr Sharma said.
Parkinson’s disease is caused by the loss of dopamine-producing nerve cells in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps to communicate messages between nerve cells and plays a role in many bodily functions, including movement, mood, behaviour, and sleep.
In addition to tremors, common early symptoms include slowness of movements (bradykinesia), problems with coordination, stiffness in the limbs or trunk, and changes in walking. Other symptoms may include speech and handwriting changes, loss of smell, constipation, cognitive difficulties, depression, and sleep disturbances.
The disease is generally diagnosed in patients older than 60, but it also can affect younger people; actor Michael J. Fox, who learned he had the disease when he was 29 in 1991, may be the best-known example. According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, only about 4% of people with the disease receive their diagnosis before turning 50.
Although the cause of Parkinson’s is unknown, there are treatments to manage symptoms, Dr Sharma said. These include medications to either increase dopamine levels or mimic its effects and advanced therapies such as deep brain stimulation, high-frequency ultrasound, and levodopa intestinal infusion. Medications are also available to manage nonmotor symptoms. Physical, occupational, and speech therapy play key roles in the management of Parkinson’s.
“In addition to medical treatment, Parkinson’s patients should exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, and get enough sleep,” Dr Sharma said. “It is also advisable to join a support group, which can be helpful for both patients and caregivers to provide emotional support and practical advice.”
Dr Sharma said it’s important to see a neurologist who specializes in movement disorders for an accurate diagnosis and to develop a treatment plan tailored to the patient’s needs. Research has shown that consulting a Parkinson’s specialist leads to better outcomes, he said, adding that it’s crucial for patients to have regular checkups and follow-ups to keep track of their symptoms and adjust their treatment plans.