Keys to Understanding Parkinson’s Disease

If you are one of the million Americans who have Parkinson’s disease – or know someone who is – you’re probably familiar with the symptoms, like poor balance and coordination, slowed movement, walking difficulty, stiffness in your arms, legs and body, and trembling arms, legs, hands, jaw or head.

These symptoms start gradually and tend to worsen over time, as Parkinson’s is a degenerative movement disorder.  

Parkinson’s has been linked to loss of nerve cells that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate movement. For this reason, many treatments for Parkinson’s are aimed at raising dopamine levels in the brain.

Severe symptoms can cause difficulty walking and talking, and possibly also sleep problems, depression, memory trouble, and fatigue.

Diagnosing Parkinson’s Disease

There is no definitive test to diagnose Parkinson’s disease. Neurologic experts agree that people with Parkinson’s typically have at least two of the four symptoms listed above (tremors, slow movement, stiffness or balance/gait problems).

Your doctor will complete a thorough history and physical exam and may order blood work or imaging tests to rule out other causes of your symptoms.

A neurologist or movement disorder specialist can determine whether your tremors are a sign of Parkinson’s disease or a common, less severe condition called essential tremor. Essential tremor causes involuntary shaking, particularly of the hands. And it may include head tremors and a shaky voice. Those with essential tremor may be at higher risk of Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s has been linked to loss of nerve cells that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate movement.

Treating Parkinson’s Disease

Keys to Understanding Parkinson’s Disease small

Parkinson’s disease has no cure, but your doctor can prescribe treatments to help you manage symptoms and live a good quality of life.

Dopaminergic medications, such as generic carbidopa/levodopa, can treat Parkinson’s symptoms by restoring dopamine levels in your brain. Medicines containing carbidopa/levodopa are the most effective for treating Parkinson’s symptoms and may be used in combination with other classes of medications, including dopamine agonists, COMT inhibitors, MAO inhibitors and anticholinergic agents.

Your doctor will work with you to find the best medicine and dosages for your symptoms, age and general health status.

Physical, occupational, and speech therapies can all help with symptoms of Parkinson’s. Some other therapies, including yoga, massage therapy, dancing, boxing, tai chi, hypnosis and acupuncture all have shown some benefits for people with Parkinson’s symptoms, but they don’t help slow the disease.

If your symptoms cannot be controlled with medication and other therapies, deep brain stimulation may offer some relief. Electrodes are surgically implanted into your brain and stimulated by a device that is implanted in your chest – like a pacemaker. The stimulation helps stop Parkinson’s symptoms including tremor, slow movements and rigidity by interrupting problematic signals in the brain.

To improve overall emotional and physical health, doctors recommend eating a healthy diet and being active.

Who is Likely to Get Parkinson’s Disease?

The exact cause of Parkinson’s disease isn’t known, but scientists have drawn some conclusions about those more likely to develop the disease.

Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease typically show up after age 50. About 10 percent of people with Parkinson’s have early-onset disease, with symptoms before age 50. Men are 1.5 times more likely to get Parkinson’s than women, according to the American Parkinson Disease Association. 

Repeated head injuries, and significant exposure to certain heavy metals or pesticides increase your chance of getting Parkinson’s. Since symptoms may not appear until years later, it’s difficult to establish a direct link.

Less than 10 percent of people with Parkinson’s have a genetic link—a mutation in a gene called LRRK2, which occurs more frequently in people of North African or Jewish descent.

Small Steps: Watch Your Use of Meds
If you have to take over-the-counter medications more frequently than recommended for headaches, talk with your doctor.

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