Editor’s Note: This story is part one of a two-part series on Parkinson’s disease. Part two will cover how someone living with Parkinson’s can benefit from physical therapy.
It may start with a slight tremor, a change in handwriting or trouble smelling certain foods.
Parkinson’s disease, which affects about 1% of Americans over 60 years of age, is a chronic disease that impacts movement, often causing tremors, slow movements and stiffness. The condition is progressive, which means it can worsen over time.
But various treatments can help.
“With treatment, patients often experience significant improvement in multiple symptoms, maximizing their quality of life and often allowing for return to activities that they may have previously stopped,” said Dr. Tracy Vargas, a neurologist at UCHealth Neurology Clinic in Steamboat Springs.
Who is most susceptible? Parkinson’s disease affects millions of people worldwide. Some estimates suggest the number of people impacted by Parkinson’s will double by 2030.
While Parkinson’s disease is rare in people under 50 years old, the incidence of the disease increases with age. Men are at a higher risk than women of having Parkinson’s disease.
“Residents of Steamboat Springs are not more susceptible to Parkinson’s Disease; however, there is a large retirement community which skews the pool of neurology patients,” Vargas said.
What causes Parkinson’s disease? Parkinson’s results when nerve cells in the area of the brain that controls movement become impaired or die. These nerve cells can no longer make dopamine, and with less dopamine, people experience the movement issues common to Parkinson’s.
The disease also impacts nerves that produce norepinephrine, which is a key chemical messenger in the control of functions such as heart rate and blood pressure.
It’s not clear why these nerve cells become impaired or die, but many researchers suggest it may be a result of genetic and environmental factors.
What are the symptoms? One of the main symptoms of Parkinson’s is tremors. A person may first notice their hands or fingers shake slightly, but tremors can eventually worsen and spread to other parts of the body. They are most noticeable at rest, and usually lessen when a person is moving or asleep.
Parkinson’s can also cause movements to become slower and someone’s steps to become shorter, making everyday tasks more difficult and time-consuming. Stiffness, which can be painful and limit range of motion, and difficulty maintaining balance may also result from Parkinson’s.
Other symptoms of the disease include difficulty sleeping, mood changes, constipation, a soft voice and dizziness.
If you’re worried you may have Parkinson’s, Vargas recommends discussing your concerns with your primary care physician to determine whether it may be helpful to see a neurologist.
How is Parkinson’s treated? The good news is that many symptoms of Parkinson’s can be staved off or lessened through treatments such as dopamine replacement therapy.
“A number of therapeutic options exist for Parkinson’s disease,” Vargas said. “Treatment options must be targeted to both motor and nonmotor symptoms. Management of patients may differ depending on disease severity and duration.”
It can take time to get the right treatment dialed in, as the types and doses of medications are tailored for individual patients.
Physical therapy can also help patients maintain and improve movement.
For patients who no longer respond to medication, a surgical treatment such as deep brain stimulation may be an option.
While a diagnosis of Parkinson’s can be difficult, Vargas reminds patients that there is hope.
“I always emphasize that this is one of the only neurodegenerative diseases with good medical and surgical options that can truly improve a patient’s quality of life,” Vargas said. “Despite not having a cure, we have a lot of good therapeutic options for symptom management.”
Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at [email protected].