For those dealing with Parkinson's disease, living with it is an ordeal, but what makes it worse is that so many people misunderstand the disease, to the point where they can only categorise it by one symptom - tremors. This guide will walk you through Parkinson's disease, its symptoms, causes, and how it can be treated and managed effectively.
What is Parkinson's Disease?
Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative disorder of the central nervous system, resulting from a loss of dopamine-generating neurons in an area of the brain called substantia nigra. As these neurons die off, a person experiences a range of movement symptoms that affect their daily living.
Parkinson's disease symptoms often progress slowly over many years. There are approximately 80,000 Australians with Parkinson's disease. Males are more likely than females to develop the condition, but overall there is no difference in life expectancy between those who have Parkinson's symptoms and those without them.
Common Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease
People with Parkinson's exhibit motor symptoms and non-motor symptoms as well. Mild symptoms occur in the earlier stages, which vary from person to person, but do not interfere with everyday activities. There are tremors that typically begin on one side of the body, changes in expressions of the face and postural instability. These symptoms continue for up to 10 years before more severe symptoms arise, such as the following:
- Muscle rigidity
- Slowness of movement or bradykinesia
- Loss of balance
- Difficulty speaking
- Sleep disturbance
- Cognitive impairments
- Involuntary movements
- Loss of smell
As the disease progresses, they begin to require assistance with daily living activities, such as eating and dressing, which causes them anxiety because they are losing their independence. Parkinson's disease has an effect on the whole family as spouses, parents and adult children who have parents with Parkinson's, have all taken it upon themselves to provide care for their loved one diagnosed with the condition. Caring for someone often leads to long-term health issues, including sleep disorders and depression, but carers ultimately sacrifice living productive lives.
Causes of Parkinson's Disease
The cause of Parkinson's disease remains largely unknown, though research has shed some light on potential causes involved. Neuroinflammation appears to play a role in the disease. A small percentage of Parkinson's cases are due to genetic factors, which means its symptoms may be passed down genetically through families.
Current research is studying possible environmental factors that may trigger the neurological condition, including pesticides, certain metals found in the environment, and exposure to some chemicals. No clear association is yet known; however, many suspect Parkinson's symptoms are linked to lack of dopamine production.
There are several risk factors that may contribute to Parkinsonian symptoms, including:
- Family history of Parkinson's
- Pesticide exposure
- Traumatic brain injury
Stages of Parkinson's Disease
Researchers have identified five stages of Parkinson's disease. A patient's motor skills and cognitive decline can be seen in these stages, which are as follows:
This is the beginning stage for Parkinson's disease patients. They may experience mild muscle stiffness in their arms and legs, which comes with time, along with having problems sitting down and getting up from sitting positions.
At this point, symptoms like tremors and muscle rigidity become pronounced. Speech impediments may also occur such as repeating words or freezing during speech. Patients can also experience constipation, impotence in men and depression, which may lead to suicidal thoughts or hallucinations.
This is the mid - stage when the disease significantly increases the disability of a person. They are unable to get out of bed without help at this point, along with being unable to walk by themselves. Patients can also have problems with swallowing and have an increased risk of choking on their food.
At this advanced stage, Parkinson's affects a person's brain cells even more so than it does in previous stages. Patients become very rigid in their movements and are usually confined to their beds due to their movement disorders. At this point, they are also at an increased risk of falling, which could lead to sustaining more injuries.
This leads towards the last stages of Parkinson's, where patients become completely immobile and are no longer able to speak or communicate with doctors or family members. Patients may also develop delusions due to dopamine levels being extremely low. The average life expectancy of a patient is usually shortened in these final stages, depending on how quickly the disease has progressed for them.
The Parkinsonian symptoms may disappear as the disease progresses, but this will only be temporary as the condition usually gets worse with time. Injuries from falls can sometimes occur more often during rapid progression due to decreased response time and lower levels of balance control.
Treatment for Parkinson's Disease
There is no cure for Parkinson's, but there are ways to manage the symptoms and improve quality of life. The levodopa and carbidopa drug combination is commonly prescribed by doctors to treat the symptoms. It helps to replace dopamine in the brain, which has been lost due to Parkinson's disease. Other medications that may be prescribed include amantadine, anticholinergics, MAO-B inhibitors, COMT inhibitors or SSRIs.
To combat the adverse effects of these medications, such as dizziness, constipation, dry mouth and hallucinations, to name a few, supportive therapies like physical therapy can help people diagnosed with Parkinson's disease manage their symptoms.
Physical therapists have specialized training to offer exercises that help slow down the progression of Parkinson's symptoms. Occupational therapists can also assist a patient with their daily activities by providing assistive devices or device-aided therapies.
Other natural remedies that will benefit many patients dealing with Parkinson's disease include:
- Regular exercise
- Massage therapy
- Counselling and other mental health care services
As Parkinson's progresses, symptoms may become more severe. Providing the right treatment along with emotional support is key to helping someone with Parkinson's continue to live life to the fullest.