Parkinson's Disease

What is Parkinson's Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a nervous system disorder. It’s a progressive disease; symptoms will continue to worsen as time passes. In early stages, symptoms mainly affect the way a person moves. But cognitive changes can occur in more advanced stages.

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, almost one million people in the U.S. are living with the disease.

Parkinson’s disease is not curable, but there are many effective treatments to help manage the disease.

Who Gets Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease usually appears at age 60 or older. But people under 50 can also be diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is more prevalent in men than women. The risk seems to increase for women as they age.

Toxin exposure and past traumatic brain injury may increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. A family history of the disease may slightly increase the risk as well.

What Causes Parkinson’s Disease?

When a person has this disease, nerve cells in the brain break down or die.

The neurons no longer produce adequate amounts of dopamine—a critical brain chemical needed for normal brain activity. This chemical shortage affects certain areas of the brain. The results are limited movements and other symptoms.

A second neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, also becomes limited. This brain chemical helps the sympathetic nervous system work properly. Functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and breathing are all regulated by the sympathetic nervous system. Many of the non-movement symptoms of Parkinson’sresult from limited amounts of norepinephrine.

It remains a mystery why these chemical imbalances occur in the brain.

Research shows that contributing factors may include specific gene mutations and markers and exposure to certain environmental factors, especially some herbicides and pesticides.

But even these factors aren’t considered major causes of Parkinson’s disease.

Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease

Early stage symptoms

PD symptoms often appear slowly, and they can be quite mild. Sometimes they’re not even noticed until someone close to the patient points them out.

The severity of symptoms among PD sufferers varies. There isn’t an organized way that symptoms develop. And not every patient exhibits every symptom.

Early symptoms usually occur on one side of your body. Eventually, these symptoms will affect both sides.

Early stage Parkinson’s disease symptoms can include:

  • A very slight tremor starting in a hand or fingers

  • Tremor exists when hand or fingers are at rest

  • Reduction in facial expression

  • Speech changes, including softer or slurred speech

  • A feeling of general unease

  • Mild stiffness in movement

  • Slight slowing of movement

  • Limited arm movements when walking

  • Depression

  • Changes in sense of smell

Mid-stage symptoms

Disease symptoms become more obvious and troublesome. Symptoms that initially started on one side of the body now affect both sides. The patient may stumble or fall more frequently. While they still function independently, motor tasks become more difficult. Everyday chores, such as getting dressed or showering, start to take longer.

Tremors are slightly more noticeable and usually disappear when there is movement, or during sleep. There is a loss of automatic body movements, including smiling or blinking. Changes in speech, including slurring of words or hesitation speaking begin to occur frequently.

More advanced symptoms of Parkinson’s disease may include:

  • Slowed body movement

  • Painful muscles, spasms, or cramps

  • Changes in penmanship

  • Shortened steps or dragging feet when walking

  • Muscle stiffness that can limit range of motion

  • Development of poor posture

Mid-Late stage symptoms

As Parkinson’s disease progresses and stages advance, a person can develop serious cognitive problems and more worrisome physical limitations. It is common for patients to need assistance with everyday tasks.

Often patients need a walker to move around. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for patients to live at home without live-in help.

More advanced symptoms of Parkinson’s disease may include:

  • Dementia

  • Depression

  • Problems swallowing

  • Excessive drooling

  • Difficulty chewing

  • Bladder problems

  • Fatigue

  • Decreased sexual desire

  • Thinking difficulties

  • Inability to maintain balance

  • Increased anxiety, fear, or other emotional changes

  • Inability to sleep through the night

  • Slower digestion causing constipation

  • Dizziness due to a sudden drop in blood pressure

  •  Inability to smell certain odors or differentiate odors

  • Pain in certain areas or throughout the body

Advanced stage disease

At this point, patients have extreme physical limitations. They will have serious issues with posture and will need a wheelchair to move around.

Many patients become incontinent, and some are completely bedridden.

It’s not uncommon for patients to suffer hallucinations or delusions, sometimes brought on by medication.

Full-time nursing care is a must.

Parkinson’s Disease Treatment

Medications help most patients maintain a good quality of life and are the primary method of treatment.

Some medications work to restore the proper balance of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain. This reduces symptoms.

Doctors may prescribe medication to help with emotional problems and sleep disturbances. If treatment with medication doesn’t work, surgery may improve symptoms.

Some patients are excellent candidates for a deep brain stimulator (DBS). During surgery, surgeons implant electrodes in the brain. They create electrical impulses that correct abnormal brain activity. This treatment effectively eases motor symptoms, but it can’t improve cognitive problems.

Physical, speech, and other therapies are effective in helping with balance, walking, eating and speech problems.

Medications and therapies can help reduce and manage symptoms to maintain a good quality of life.

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