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April was National Parkinson’s Awareness Month, an opportunity to improve education about one of the most common movement disorders. Every six minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. And while there’s no cure for the neurologic condition, appropriate management can help to slow down progression and allow men and women with the disease to live with the highest quality of life for as long as possible.
If you or someone you love is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, here’s what you should know about symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.
Every 6 minutes, someone in the U.S is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Read the MedStar Health blog to learn what you should know about symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment: https://bit.ly/41pmzkf.Click to Tweet
What is Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s disease is one of the most common movement disorders, which are neurological conditions caused by injury or change to a part of the brain that helps manage signals responsible for moving your muscles. It’s a progressive disease that slowly worsens over time, which means treatment is aimed to help manage symptoms and maximize your quality of life while living with it.
While we don’t know the cause in many cases, Parkinson’s develops when an abnormal protein called alpha-synuclein kills the brain cells responsible for producing dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that helps us move normally. As dopamine levels decrease, it can lead to changes in movement and other Parkinson’s symptoms.
Who is at risk for developing Parkinson’s disease?
The cause of Parkinson’s is unknown, but it tends to affect both men and women as they age. While there are a few rare instances where the disease is linked to certain genetic factors, it is not typically a hereditary condition passed down from family member to family member.
Environmental factors are also linked to the disease, and some research suggests exposure to certain toxins, such as pesticides, may increase an individual’s risk of the condition. There is no definitive way to prevent Parkinson’s disease. However, we do know that aerobic exercise is helpful for preventing or slowing the disease process.
What are the most common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease?
Signs of this condition are different for everyone and progress at different rates. Symptoms may be related to how someone moves (motor function), such as:
- Bradykinesia, or slowed movement: The disease may slow down movement during physical actions, making it harder to perform everyday activities. This may look like shuffling your feet while walking, having fewer facial expressions, or experiencing difficulty getting out of a chair.
- Tremors: Rhythmic shaking can occur around joints in the hands, legs, or feet.
- Rigidity: Muscle stiffness or a feeling of tightness can limit your range of motion in the arms or legs.
- Gait or postural instability: Impaired balance can increase the risk of falling.
People with the disease may also experience other non-movement signs, and these can sometimes be eleven more unsettling than movement symptoms. These may include:
- Mood changes: Parkinson’s can impact an individual’s mental health, causing anxiety, depression, and/or apathy.
- Constipation: Brain changes caused by the disease can affect the muscles in the digestive tract.
- Loss of smell: It is not uncommon to experience a reduced sense of smell (hyposmia), which can affect your ability to enjoy food.
- Sleep disturbances: Many people with Parkinson’s disease experience disrupted sleep, especially those who also suffer from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder. This related movement disorder causes people to act out their dreams during REM sleep because their muscles cannot relax.
It’s also interesting to note that some medications can mimic Parkinson’s disease symptoms. That’s why it’s always important to talk to a doctor about any concerning signs of the disease. A movement disorder specialist can help accurately diagnose Parkinson’s or identify if your symptoms are linked to something else.
How is Parkinson’s diagnosed and managed?
If you have signs and symptoms of the disease, your primary care doctor may refer you to a neurologist, which is a specialist trained to diagnose and treat conditions that affect the central nervous system. A neurologist can typically diagnose you with Parkinson’s in the office by reviewing your symptoms and medical history and performing a physical examination.
In very specific circumstances, your doctor may recommend other tests to gather more information. These may include a dopamine transporter (DAT) scan or a skin biopsy, which looks for the presence of alpha-synuclein. However, these tests are less common and not required for diagnosis.
Parkinson’s treatment options.
While treatment cannot get rid of Parkinson’s disease, individualized care can help control your symptoms so you can live a happy and healthy life for as long as possible. First, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, such as increasing your aerobic activity. Walking, running, aquatic therapy, and other forms of exercise can slow down progression of the disease and help improve balance, mobility, and mental health. There are a variety of local community exercise programs specifically created to help people living with Parkinson’s disease stay moving through Tai Chi, yoga, dance, weight training, non-contact boxing, and other classes. Our movement disorder specialists can help connect you to one of these and other resources to help you exercise consistently.
Other treatment recommendations may include:
- Medications: Some medications can help to manage symptoms impacted by reduced dopamine levels. For example, carbidopa-levodopa is a small pill that converts to dopamine in the body and may be used to improve symptoms.
- Surgical treatments: Deep brain stimulation (DBS) involves placing electrodes into the brain and using electrical pulses to stimulate the brain for symptom management.
- Focused ultrasound: A new treatment uses MRI-guided ultrasound waves to manage tremors.
- Clinical trials: Ongoing research allows us to study emerging treatments or find better ways to manage or reduce treatment side effects related to medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease.
Watch our Facebook Live with Dr. Gary Volkell to learn more about Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders:
If you or a loved one was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s, it’s important to seek care from a team that will help to manage medications and any possible side effects. At MedStar Health, our movement disorder specialists are here to help treat your symptoms as they appear, so you have the time and opportunity to continue doing the things you enjoy. In addition to medical management of the condition, we’re here to provide resources and support for you and your family as you navigate any challenges that arise. From environmental modifications and assistive devices that make navigating your home safer to strategies to help you maintain your independence, our goal is to minimize the impact of your disease on your daily life and your ability to do what you love.