Understanding Parkinson’s Disease
What is Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s disease is a nervous system disorder that affects the part of the brain that controls how the body moves. Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease typically start gradually but can worsen as your condition progresses over time. While it can’t be cured, Parkinson’s disease can be managed through medication and different types of therapies.
The signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease tend to differ for everyone. Early signs of the disease are known to be mild and can go unnoticed, often in the form of tremors. Symptoms may also begin in only one side of the body. Common signs and symptoms include:
Tremors. Parts of the body start to shake even if you are not using them.
Slower movement. In time, Parkinson’s disease can slow your movements and make it harder for you to complete tasks that were otherwise easy.
Rigid or stiff muscles. Muscle stiffness can occur in any part of the body and can often be misdiagnosed as arthritis.
Problems with posture, balancing and walking. With Parkinson’s disease, many experience stopping postures, and they may face issues when trying to balance or walk. When walking, you may notice your arms stiff or that you can’t take long steps.
Loss of automatic movements. You may lose the ability to perform unconscious movements such as smiling or blinking.
Speech changes. Those suffering from Parkinson’s disease may experience a change in the way they speak. They may start to speak softly or slur their sentences.
What causes Parkinson’s disease?
Neurologists aren’t sure why brain cells start to die. Many believe it’s caused by a mix of your genes and your environment, but there is no definitive cause.
Researchers have identified genetic mutations that can cause Parkinson’s disease but this occurs mainly when the person has family members that have been affected by Parkinson’s in the past.
Exposure to certain toxins (constant exposure to herbicides, pesticides, etc) can also increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease at a later stage, but the risk is small.
Researchers have said that many changes can occur in the brain of those with Parkinson’s disease. More notably, there will be a presence of Lewy bodies. These microscopic clumps within brain cells are known to be markers of Parkinson’s disease. Scientists believe that an important substance is an alpha-synuclein substance that is found in all Lewy bodies and can’t be broken down.
Risk factors for Parkinson’s disease include:
- Age. Parkinson’s disease usually occurs around the age of 60 or older. Young adults rarely experience the disease.
- Genetics/Heredity. Having a relative with Parkinson’s disease increases the likelihood of you developing the disease, but the risk is lower unless you have multiple family members with the disease.
- Gender. It’s known that men are more likely to develop Parkinson’s than women.
How does Parkinson’s affect the brain?
The effects of Parkinson’s disease can stem far beyond tremors or uncontrollable body movements. In many cases, it can affect your ability to think normally and can affect your mood.
In the brain, there’s an area called the substantia nigra. Some of its cells make dopamine, which is a chemical that carries messages around your brain and is essentially responsible for instructing the body to make certain movements. When our systems function well, messages are carried effectively and the body moves smoothly.
When dealing with Parkinson’s, the cells in the substantia nigra start to die and there’s no way to replace them. The dopamine levels start to drop and the brain is unable to send signals to the rest of the body.
Symptoms usually start off slow and mild and you may not notice anything different. But as cells continue to die, you start to experience more severe and noticeable symptoms that would affect daily life.
Can you treat Parkinson’s disease?
While you can’t cure Parkinson’s disease, there are ways you can treat and manage symptoms.
Certain prescribed medications may help you manage difficulties with walking, movements or tremors. They can also substitute dopamine. These medications include:
- Carbidopa-levodopa. Levodopa is a natural chemical that can pass into the brain and gets converted into dopamine. When combined with carbidopa, the levodopa is protected from early conversion to dopamine outside the brain.
- Dopamine agonists. These won’t change into dopamine like levodopa, but they tend to mimic the effects of dopamine in your brain. They aren’t as effective as levodopa when trying to treat symptoms, but they are known to last longer.
- Anticholinergics. This helps treat the tremors that come along with Parkinson’s disease.
- Amantadine. This is usually prescribed to provide short-term relief for symptoms during the early stages of Parkinson’s. It could also be administered with carbidopa-levodopa during later stages of the disease in order to control involuntary movements.
The most common surgical treatment for Parkinson’s disease is deep brain stimulation (DBS). During the procedure, a surgeon will implant electrodes into a specific part of the brain. The electrodes are connected to a generator that is implanted in the chest and sends electrical pulses to the brain in an attempt to reduce symptoms.
DBS is mostly offered to those with an advanced form of Parkinson’s, along with unstable reactions to medications. DBS is known to stabilize these medication fluctuations, as well as reduce involuntary movements, tremors, rigidity and can improve movement overall. Apart from controlling tremors, DBS is not helpful for those problems that don’t respond to levodopa therapy.
Physical therapy can help patients manage the changes that Parkinson’s brings to their bodies. A physical therapist will teach exercises to loosen and strengthen muscles and these exercises can be done at home.
Lifestyle Changes and Home Remedies
You may also find relief from symptoms by changing daily routines and habits, thus improving the quality of your life with Parkinson’s disease.
Eating healthier foods can help ease symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Foods high in fiber and drinking enough fluids can prevent constipation, which is a common outcome of this disease. With a balanced and healthy diet, you’re also allowing your body to receive vital nutrients and omega-3 fatty acids.