You’ve likely heard of Parkinson’s disease. There are many celebrities who have suffered or currently suffer from it. Robin Williams and Michael J. Fox are just two of the biggest known stars with the debilitating and chronic disease. Unfortunately, Robin Williams took his own life due to depression and possibly due to the early stages of the condition.
However, there are many others out there who suffer from it. This is one of those diseases that has no known cure, but there are treatments to help manage it (and the symptoms). If you’ve recently been diagnosed or you know someone who has, you’ll want to know more about the condition. What will it mean for the future and what steps can you take to manage it now?
Here’s a look at absolutely everything you need to know about Parkinson’s disease. This could also help to get a diagnosis for someone you believe may have it.
What Exactly Does Parkinson’s Disease Entail?
Parkinson’s is a nervous system disorder. It’s progressive, which means it gradually gets worse. At first many of the symptoms are minor and may only be on one hand. Over time, these symptoms affect the rest of the body. One of the most common symptoms that will noticeably get worse is the tremor.
Some of the symptoms will only be visible to others. While you think you’re showing emotion, people won’t see any movement in your face. You may find your arms don’t swing while walking, which is often overlooked in the early stages. It’s when the speech becomes slurred and other symptoms appear that people start taking the condition seriously.
While it’s a chronic disorder (meaning there is no cure), there are treatments to help manage the symptoms. It is possible to live a somewhat normal life for many years with the disease.
What Causes Parkinson’s Disease?
One of the first things many people question if they’ve been diagnosed is whether they’ve caused the disease. Parkinson’s is a disease of the nerve cells. The brain’s neurons start to break down and die, which can lead to a reduction in the amount of dopamine in the body. When levels of dopamine decrease, the brain activity becomes abnormal and you can’t control your body’s functions and actions as well.
Doctors don’t know the full causes of the disease, but it is unlikely anything you’ve done. One of the most commonly believed causes is your genetics. Researchers have found certain gene mutations can lead to the disease. However, these are uncommon mutations.
As are environmental factors. There are certainly some toxins that can lead to the development of the disease, but researchers haven’t found the risk to be large.
The presence of Lewy bodies or alpha-synuclein in the Lewy bodies has also been linked to the disorder. Lewy bodies are clumps of substances within your brain cells. They’re microscopic and known as Parkinson’s markers. In some cases, the Lewy bodies have a protein known as alpha-synuclein, which can prevent the Lewy bodies breaking down and affect the cells more. Researchers are currently spending more time and resources into the Lewy bodies to see how they affect the development of Parkinson’s disorder.
There’s very little you can do to prevent the Lewy bodies, although there may be some natural remedies. Treatments tend to link to the Lewy bodies to help manage the levels of them and the levels of the proteins within them.
There Are Risk Factors Involved
While researchers don’t understand everything, there are certain noted risk factors involved. Genetics are one. If you have a family member with Parkinson’s, there is a chance that you can develop it. However, the risks are small except in cases where multiple family members have the disorder.
Men are more likely to develop it than women, but the reasons for this are unknown. Those who are older are also more likely to see symptoms, especially from around the age of 60 years. Of course, in the cases of like Michael J. Fox, there is a chance you can develop it at a younger age.
Those who are exposed to more pesticides and herbicides have seen an increase in the risk of development. However, the increased risk is minor.
Because the risk factors and causes are unknown, it’s currently impossible to prevent the disease entirely. Researchers are still looking for a way to do this.
Complications in Untreated Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease can lead to many other conditions and problems. If untreated, these complications tend to be more severe.
Many of the problems are linked to the mental health. Remember that Parkinson’s is linked to the reduction in dopamine. This is the natural chemical that helps to boost happy feelings. It can help to keep depression at bay. Those with low levels of dopamine can suffer from depression and other emotional changes.
The good news is that receiving treatment for depression can help to manage the Parkinson’s symptoms. Treatments usually involve adding more dopamine to the body, which helps to protect the cells within the brain.
Another complication is linked to cognitive abilities. It can be hard to remember things or concentrate. Those who have Parkinson’s are more likely to develop dementia in later life. Unfortunately, there are very few treatments that can help with this condition, so it’s important to manage Parkinson’s as much as possible.
The rest of the body can also be affected. People with Parkinson’s tend to have sleep disorders, especially insomnia. You may find that you wake more in the night, fall asleep throughout the day or struggle with early waking. Rapid eye movement is also a problem in some patients.
You can also find it hard to swallow as the disease progresses. You get more saliva in the mouth but controlling the muscles in the throat gets harder. This can lead to more drooling.
Bladder and bowel problems can also be an issue. Some patients struggle to urinate, while others struggle to control their urination. The digestive system slows, and it can be harder to pass stools.
There are also issues with other bodily functions and activities. The blood pressure tends to drop quickly, leading to lightheaded feelings and dizziness. Patients tend to experience more pain and fatigue. There’s some sexual and smell dysfunction.
Medications can help to manage many of these problems. Doctors can also find other treatments to help.
What Are Parkinson’s Symptoms?
How do you know if someone has Parkinson’s? Getting early treatment can help to slow down progression, but how do you know if the symptoms are Parkinson’s or something else?
One of the most common early signs is a tremor. This often starts just in one limb, and usually in one part of the limb. Many experiences it in the fingers or hand first and it can sometimes involve back-and-forth rubbing between the index finger and thumb. This is called a pill-rolling tremor and something you or your loved one may do without realizing.
The tremor is often present when the hand is at rest. There’s no reason for the shaking, such as a pressure on the nerve.
As the muscles are affected, another symptom can be slowed movements. This can include dragging the feet while walking, finding it harder to get out of a chair or the bed, or other movements being slow. The muscles can become stiff, which also limits the movements and makes it harder to do normal, everyday things.
In some cases, the movements stop entirely. Some people find it impossible to blink or swing their arms. This affects the facial expressions, too. It can be hard to frown, smile, or make other small movements within the face.
Of course, the handwriting can change. It’s harder to grip a pen or keep the pen steady to write anything. Handwriting often becomes smaller, as you make as limited movements as possible.
Another symptom is the speech. Some people will speak softer than before, as they struggle to manage the vocal muscles. There may be some hesitation in the words or the speech can become slurred. It’s also possible that the voice sounds like it has no emotion, as it becomes monotone to control the shaking vocal muscles.
The Parkinson’s disease symptoms can start minor. They eventually get worse, becoming more visible to those around you.
As soon as symptoms are suspected, it’s important to talk to a doctor. While a doctor can’t treat the condition, it is possible to get help to manage it. This can help to slow down the progression and manage side effects of the disease.
How Doctors Diagnose Parkinson’s Disease
At this time, there aren’t any tests specifically used to diagnose Parkinson’s disease. Your doctor will need to look at your nervous system, which often means going to a specialist. Both your own doctor and the specialist will look at your medical history and family history. A physical and neurological exam will be performed, as well as a look at all the symptoms you’re experiencing.
Some blood tests may be required. These aren’t to test for Parkinson’s, but to rule out other conditions that can cause the symptoms. MRI and PET scans can also be ordered to rule out other conditions within the brain, but they don’t help with diagnosing Parkinson’s disease.
Doctors may only be able to officially diagnose you after testing out a medicine for the disease. You’ll usually be given a high dosage of carbidopa-levodopa. This medication helps to reduce your symptoms if they are caused by Parkinson’s disease. If not, you won’t see any improvement after a couple of days use.
Your doctor will likely order multiple follow-up appointments and tests. This isn’t the easiest condition to diagnose, despite many clear symptoms. Often the symptoms can start minor and disguise themselves as other conditions. Your doctor will want to rule out any other conditions to make sure you get the right treatments for your disorder.
Treatments to Manage the Symptoms
As mentioned, there are no cures for this. The treatments help to manage the condition, controlling symptoms and preventing complications. Many of the symptoms start off orally but there may be surgical treatments later. Your doctor will also likely encourage you to change your lifestyle to help manage the levels of dopamine naturally in your brain and encourage some speech therapy and other therapy to manage the side effects of the symptoms.
Medication is one of the most common treatments offered. Your doctor will want to help manage the dopamine levels, but it’s not possible to give dopamine directly since it needs to get to your brain and that isn’t possible through medications. You need to use medications that help to encourage the brain to make more naturally.
Continual monitoring will be needed, as the body can get used to the medication levels. Doctors will need to adjust medications to ensure they always work.
Carbidopa-levodopa is the most common medication used and not just for diagnosis. It’s highly effective and is a natural chemical that is converted to dopamine within the brain. The medication is two components joined together to help prevent premature conversion outside the brain to ensure proper treatment. You may experience some dizziness from the treatment, due to low blood pressure. Unfortunately, the dosage will need to be increased over time and high levels may have the opposite effect on your symptoms.
The medication can also be offered through a feeding tube directly into your small intestine. This is often the option for those who have seen responsiveness to the oral medication but suffer from fluctuations due to the medication.
Dopamine agonists are also offered. They help to mimic the dopamine within the brain but aren’t as effective as other treatments. However, the body getting used to the medication doesn’t happen as quickly as with carbidopa-levodopa. There are various options, including Mirapex, Neupro, and Requip, depending on your doctor’s recommendations.
There are some serious side effects, which makes them less popular to be given. One of those is hallucinations. They can also lead to some compulsive behaviors, which can be hard to control. If you are acting out of character or a loved one is acting out of character, the medication could be to blame.
MAO-B inhibitors are another option to help prevent the breaking down of dopamine within the brain. Medications like Eldepryl, Azilect, and Zelapar are offered to inhibit the development of enzyme monoamine oxidase B within the brain.
Some of the side effects include insomnia and nausea. They can be used with carbidopa-levodopa but tend to be avoided due to the higher risk of hallucinations. They are also sometimes used with antidepressants but can lead to other serious side effects, so doctors will only mix when necessary.
COMT inhibitors are another option. They prevent the development of catechol-O-methyltransferase, which also leads to the breaking down of the dopamine in the brain. Comtan is the most common branded medication offered, although Tasmar can also be used. There are some serious side effects, including liver damage and failure. Other side effects include involuntary movements and diarrhea, so they’re not popular options.
If you want to manage the tremors, your doctor may prescribe anticholinergics. These include benztropine and trihexyphenidyl to manage the most common symptom, especially in earlier stages. Some patients experience dry mouth, problems urinating, constipation and some hallucinations from the disease and the benefits aren’t always worth the side effects.
When it comes to mild symptoms, your doctor may recommend amantadine. The benefits are mild and only short-term, but they can help in the earlier stages. This can often lead to the use of other treatments in the future. Some of the side effects include swelling in the ankles, purple spots on the skin, and some hallucinations.
There are surgical options, with the most common being deep brain stimulation. A surgeon will implant electrodes within your brain to help manage the dopamine levels, protect the cells, and reduce some of the symptoms you experience.
There are risks involved and it’s not a popular option for everyone. This is often a last-resort option for those with severe symptoms or for those who haven’t shown any improvement in other medications. The complications include an increased risk of infections, stroke, and brain hemorrhage.
The treatment doesn’t prevent Parkinson’s disease getting worse. However, the symptoms will be managed better. You’ll need to see your doctor regularly to change your levels as your condition progresses.
There are also clinical trials available. Your doctor will discuss these and make recommendations where they believe you may benefit.
What Are Home Remedies Available?
While you will need to take the medications, your doctor will also recommend home remedies. The most common include a change in your eating habits. There are certain foods and combinations that can help to prevent the development and progression of Parkinson’s. You want to add more foods that boost the dopamine levels in the brain to prevent the development of the disease and breaking down of the cells.
Your diet can also manage some of the other symptoms and complications. For example, a high fiber diet can help to keep your digestive system functioning to reduce constipation.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been considered the best for preventing Parkinson’s disease progresses. The fatty acids protect the cells and reduce oxidative damage within the brain. They can also help to manage some of the cognitive side effects of the condition.
Exercise has been proven to be highly beneficial for those with Parkinson’s. It helps to boost the happy hormones in the brain but can also improve muscle flexibility and strength. You can also improve your balance, which can be affected by the condition.
You’ll want to talk to your doctor about your exercising options. A physical therapist will be able to give exercises that are safe to perform, especially if your tremor or balance is off. Some of the best exercises can include aqua aerobics, yoga, walking, dancing, or gardening. Swimming can be beneficial, but you will want to listen to your body, especially if you experience some tremors and lack of control over your muscles.
Avoid moving too quickly, especially if you have low blood pressure. Have a friend with you when you do exercise, especially if your disease is spreading.
As your condition worsens, you may find that exercise gets harder. It’s important to find a way to cope and get support for your condition. There’s nothing wrong with looking into the use of occupational therapists or having a family member with you.
Music therapy and art therapy have proven positive for some of those with the disease. You can boost your mood listening to music you love or doing a hobby that you enjoy. Meditation and pet therapy are also recommendations for alternative medicine. A dog can make you get out and walk more, boosting your exercise levels and improving your mental health. Meditation helps you connect within yourself, managing what you’re good at and focusing on boosting your positive mental health.
One of the best things you can do is find a support group. You want to talk to others with the disease at all stages of progression. Your doctor will usually help and some of the groups are online for the times that you find it harder to move and get out of the house. These support groups will have individuals who share how they managed their condition and what they find is useful for managing symptoms and side effects.
Managing Parkinson’s Disease, Yourself
If you notice any of the symptoms, the best thing you can do is talk to your doctor. While there may not be a cure, there are treatments to help manage symptoms and improve your abilities. You can still do some daily tasks.
The disease is progressive. This can take years or months. It really depends on how you protect your health and the help you seek both medically and mentally. It’s time to take control of the disease and live your life as full as you wish.