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Parkinson's Disease

What is Parkinson's disease?

Parkinson's Disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects body movement. This condition is caused due the deficiency of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that is responsible for controlling body movements. Parkinson's is a chronic (persists for a long time) and progressive disorder, that is, the brain cells gradually degenerate and symptoms worsen over time. Parkinson's is not contagious and cannot be cured.

What are the causes of Parkinson's disease?

The cause of Parkinson's is unknown but medical experts observe that the condition may be caused due to certain genetic or environmental factors. However, the symptoms and severity may vary from one person to another.

  • Genetic factors: Certain genetic mutations have been identified that may increase the risk of Parkinson's. Research is still under progress.

  • Environmental factors: Some scientists attribute that exposure to toxins may affect the nerve cells that produce dopamine.

  • Additional risk factors:

    • Age: One of the major risk factors is advancing age, mostly over 60 years. But the condition can start much earlier.

    • Gender: Men are at a slightly higher risk when compared to women.

    • Family history: If any first level relative (mother, father, sibling) in the family was affected with Parkinson's, then the person may be at a higher risk of developing the condition.

    • Head injury: Traumatic brain injury could cause the condition.

What are the signs of Parkinson's disease?

In the beginning, the symptoms of Parkinson's may be very mild and the person or family members may not be able to recognize them. The number of symptoms and severity may vary from one person to the other.  

The major symptoms include:

  • Tremor (trembling or shaking). As the disease progresses, the shaking or tremor may increase considerably disrupting daily activities.

  • Stiffness of muscles that inhibit muscle movement thereby causing pain.

  • Slowness of movement and difficulty in maintaining posture and balance

  • Problems with speech and swallowing

  • Cramps or a pulling sensation in the muscles that are painful

  • Difficulty in writing

  • It is observed that several neurological systems that control sleep, smell, bowel and bladder movement are also affected.

What Parkinson's disease is not

As a person grows old,  there are several changes in his or her health and well-being. An elderly person may sometimes lose balance while walking, may lose sense of smell due to cold or flu. A person suffering from an injury or any other illness such as arthritis may find it difficult with body movement. This is not a sign of Parkinson's disease.

How is Parkinson's disease diagnosed?

There is no single test for Parkinson's, making it a difficult disease to diagnose. Doctors use medical history and neurological examination to diagnose the condition. Before confirming the condition as Parkinson's, doctors may conduct brain scan or laboratory tests to rule out the possibility of other illness that could cause the above mentioned symptoms.

Getting treatment for Parkinson's disease

Parkinson's disease cannot be cured but a specific treatment plan and medication can help control your symptoms. Making some lifestyle changes like exercising regularly, eating nutritious food and maintaining a balanced diet, having a regular sleep routine, and keeping yourself active, may help cope with the condition. Physical therapy that focuses on balance and stretching may also be beneficial. Speech therapy may help in improving speech.

Coping and support

Living with any chronic illness can be difficult, and it is natural to feel angry, frustrated, depressed, and discouraged. Emotional support and care from the family goes a long way in helping you cope with the illness. Joining a support group and interacting with people who are facing the same problem will help in getting the necessary support.

Depression with Parkinson's disease

During the course of accepting the fact and managing the symptoms of Parkinson's, the patient is also prone to a clinical syndrome of anxiety and depression, which is an underlying condition that occurs with Parkinson's. Over the years, it has been observed that depression is becoming predominantly common among patients with Parkinson's. The changes in the brain that cause problems with movement also cause changes in mood, thus causing depression. The person may experience most of the symptoms of depression, and may find it difficult to cope with the illness, which in turn, can affect the quality of life. Treating depression is important as it alleviates suffering and all other symptoms become more manageable.

Caring for someone with Parkinson's

When your loved one is diagnosed with Parkinson's, it can be a life-changing experience for the person, for you, and your entire family. As a caregiver, your role becomes extremely important, because the person may need constant attention and care.

Since Parkinson's disease progresses slowly, caregiving can last for many years, and can be exhausting.

This can affect the caregiver's physical and emotional health to a large extent. Caregivers may experience loss of immunity, sleep deprivation, which can cause irritability and frustration. It is also observed that caregivers are at a high risk of depression, anxiety. Hence, caregivers also need to take care of their physical and emotional well-being.

The family can also benefit from speaking to a mental health expert and understanding about the illness, so that they learn to empathize with their family member and also provide the needed support and care.

Myths and facts about Parkinson's disease

Myth: Parkinson’s affects only movement.

Fact: Parkinson’s disease affects multiple areas of the brain. Non-motor symptoms can include impaired sense of smell, sleep disorders, cognitive difficulties, constipation/ bladder problems, sexual dysfunction, fatigue, pain, anxiety and depression.

Myth: Parkinson’s affects only older people.

Fact: While a majority of people may develop the condition in their fifties or early sixties, about 10% of people are diagnosed before age 40.

Myth: All individuals with Parkinson’s have tremors.

Fact: Although tremor is the most common symptom, some people with the disorder never experience any tremors.

Myth: Parkinson’s disease can become severe unexpectedly.

Fact: Though symptoms may fluctuate throughout the day, the disease progresses very slowly. If symptoms worsen over days or weeks, then other factors like infection, side-effects of medication, stress or another medical condition may be the cause.

Myth: Only medication can treat Parkinson's disease.

Fact: Although some symptoms can be treated with medication, lifestyle changes that include regular exercise, muscle strengthening therapies and a healthy diet, can reduce the severity of symptoms and improve the quality of life. It has been observed that patients who exercised for one hour every week showed significant signs of improvement in daily activities.

Myth: Parkinson’s is genetic.

Fact: The cause of Parkinson's is not known and only 5-10 % is genetic. It is also observed that environmental factors may play a major role.

Myth: Parkinson’s disease is fatal.

Fact: Parkinson’s disease itself will not cause death. Other problems like difficulty in swallowing may cause respiratory infections like pneumonia, but many people never experience this and can live for decades after diagnosis.