Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition that can slowly chip away at the quality of life of those living with it and their families. It’s estimated that between 500,000 and one million Americans currently live with the disease, making it the second most common neurodegenerative disorder in the United States. Since the disease develops slowly, it can be easy to miss or misunderstand the symptoms as they appear. Knowing what Parkinson’s disease is, its symptoms, and the treatment options, you can begin to combat some of the fear that naturally comes with a diagnosis.
What is Parkinson’s Disease?
As a neurodegenerative disorder, Parkinson’s disease is caused by a deterioration of parts of the brain. Specifically for Parkinson’s, the deterioration is a result of neurons becoming impaired or dying in the basal ganglia, the part of the brain which controls movement. As the neurons continue to become impaired or die, movement is more significantly affected, showcasing the symptoms that are associated with the disorder.
The specific causes of Parkinson’s disease aren’t fully known or understood by scientists. There are some risk factors that make developing Parkinson’s more likely, however. Genetics is a major one, likely accounting for 10 percent to 15 percent of all cases. Research into the genetics of people with Parkinson’s disease has found genetic mutations that are now linked with the disorder. Environmental factors may also play a role with its development, with certain pesticides, metals, and occupations potentially influencing your risk. In contrast, healthy lifestyle choices like exercise, limited caffeine consumption, and high Vitamin D intake may lower your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
What are the Symptoms of Parkinson’s?
While the onset of Parkinson’s symptoms can vary from person to person, the three cardinal movement symptoms are slowed: movement, stiffness, and a resting tremor. Someone with Parkinson’s may develop balance or walking issues. Mood disorders like depression are also not uncommon among those who the disease.
The Parkinson’s Foundation lists the 10 early signs of the disorder as:
- Tremors — A tremor, specifically a resting tremor, is often the first motor symptom to develop. Most commonly, it occurs when you’re not using the muscles (why it’s called a resting tremor). The symptom may be more common when the individual is tired.
- Smaller Handwriting — This is linked with stiffness which is often a symptom of Parkinson’s. As the condition progresses, the ability to perform repetitive motions like writing decreases, causing smaller handwriting.
- Loss of Smell — Also called hyposmia, the loss of smell is a commonly overlooked as an early sign. Parkinson’s may also weaken your sense of taste, since smell contributes to how taste is perceived.
- Trouble Sleeping — People with Parkinson’s disease may experience sleep disruptions in several ways. While some may experience insomnia, sleep apnea, or restless legs syndrome, the most discussed symptom is REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD). This is when someone acts out parts of their dream, such as thrashing, drastic movements, and falling out of bed.
- Difficulty Walking or Moving — Like handwriting, movement difficulties relate to stiffness. As Parkinson’s develops, there may be a persistent stiffness, especially in one’s hips or shoulders.
- Constipation — The same deterioration that leads to difficulty walking and tremors also can cause constipation by making it harder for your body to move food through the digestive system. It’s also believed that the disorder can affect the nerves in your digestive tract, causing damage in the gut as well.
- Voice Becoming Softer or Lower — Changes to voice patterns are common with Parkinson’s disease, with around 75 percent experiencing it. This could be a change in voice by becoming breathy, hoarse, or lower in volume. If it’s a significant change, you may want to talk to your doctor.
- Facial Masking — Having a less expressive face isn’t always a sign of serious issues, but it could relate to stiffness from Parkinson’s. Many of our facial expressions rely on intricate, subtle muscular movements. When these movements become more difficult due to Parkinson’s disease, you may have a blank or more emotionless face.
- Dizziness or Fainting — You know when you stand and feel dizzy? This is called orthostatic hypotension (OH). When it’s related to a neurological issue like Parkinson’s disease, it’s called neurogenic orthostatic hypotension (nOH). It’s caused by damage to the nervous system restricting the release of norepinephrine, which helps control blood pressure and blood vessels and leads to dizziness.
- Stooped or Hunched Posture — A change in posture can be the result of Parkinson’s dampening of the brain’s automatic activities, so your body isn’t getting reminders to maintain good posture. Stiffness can also lead to stooping or hunching.
If you notice the onset or one or several of these symptoms, you should talk to your doctor. They may decide to test you for Parkinson’s, which can involve scans and lab tests such as spinal taps or biopsies.
What are the Treatment Options?
Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, though there are therapies and treatment options to help control or lessen the symptoms. Medications are the most common route taken, though there aren’t currently drugs to slow or stop the progression of Parkinson’s. Some examples of medications you may be prescribed to treat symptoms are carbidopa-levodopa, dopamine antagonists, and amantadine, to name a few. There’s also ongoing research for the benefits of medical marijuana for neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
In some cases, your doctor may recommend a healthy diet, exercise, and physical therapy to aid with balance and flexibility. By working with your doctor, you can find the treatment(s) that work best for your specific case.
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With no cure currently available, Parkinson’s disease is a disorder that’s important to catch early. That said, if you have Parkinson’s, you can reclaim your quality of life with the help of your loved ones and health care providers. Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time before we are able to slow or even stop the progression of this neurodegenerative disease.