Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system which affects the way a person moves and speaks. Its causes are largely unknown, there is no test for it and it can’t yet be cured. Yet, despite the pressing need for funding to find a cure, public awareness of the illness is sadly lacking according to the experts.
That’s why, a week in April has been designated Parkinson’s Awareness Week, with the aim of spreading the word about the condition, offering support for sufferers and raising money to help drive vital research.
So what is the condition and who can it afflict?
Parkinson’s is a chronic disorder of part of the brain. It mainly affects the way the brain co-ordinates the movements of the muscles in various parts of the body.
While it usually occurs in people over the age of 50, becoming more common the older you get, it can also develop in younger adults. High profile younger sufferers include the actor Michael J Fox and boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
Although Parkinson’s is not usually hereditary, there is a possible genetic link among people who develop it before the age of 50.
Around 127,000 people in the UK are affected by the condition and around 10 million people around the world are estimated to be living with Parkinson’s disease. As a significant number of elderly patients with early symptoms assume that their traits may be part of normal ageing and do not seek medical help, obtaining accurate statistics is probably impossible.
What are the symptoms of Parkinson’s?
There are many different symptoms associated with the disease but they differ in their severity and development from person to person. Some of the more common symptoms may include:
- Tremors or uncontrollable shaking which usually begins in the hand or arm
- Slowness of movement which makes everyday tasks difficult and can result in a slow, shuffling walk
- Muscle stiffness and tension which can result in painful muscle cramps
- Fixed facial expression due to poorer control over facial muscle coordination and movement
Other symptoms which can also develop include the following:
- Problems with balance
- Loss of the sense of smell
- Problems with urination
- Nerve pain
- Depression and anxiety
- Problems sleeping
- Dizziness and blurred vision
- Excessive sweating
- Problems with swallowing
What causes Parkinson’s disease?
It is caused by the loss of a specific type of brain cell that produces dopamine, a chemical which plays a vital role in regulating the movement of the body. What causes the loss of these cells is unclear but is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Diagnosing Parkinson’s disease
Because there is no test to prove a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, when symptoms are mild and in the early stages, it can be difficult to be conclusive. Your GP will talk to you about your symptoms and medical history and may ask you to perform some simple exercises. You may then be referred to a specialist.
Being told you have the disease can be emotionally distressing and difficult to take in. But the good news is that therapies and medications can provide good relief from symptoms for several years.
What are the treatment options?
There is currently no cure but treatments are available to help relieve your symptoms and maintain your quality of life.
These include supportive therapies such as physiotherapy, medication and possibly surgery. During the early stages you may not need any treatment but your condition should be monitored with regular check-ups. Treatment options may include:
- A physiotherapist can work with you to relieve muscle stiffness and joint pain.
- An occupational therapist can help you work out practical solutions to make everyday tasks achievable.
- A speech and language therapist can assist you with speaking and swallowing exercises.
- Making dietary changes can also improve some symptoms.
- These include increasing the amount of fibre in your diet, drinking enough fluid to reduce constipation, increasing the amount of salt and eating frequent small meals to avoid problems with low blood pressure.
- Medication such as levodopa, dopamine agonists and monoamine oxidase-B inhibitors may be offered. Your specialist will explain these options and discuss which may be best for you.
- Surgery such as deep brain stimulation may be offered in specialist centres in the UK, but it is not suitable for everyone.
Living with Parkinson’s disease
A diagnosis of Parkinson’s is life-changing. You will need long-term treatment to control your symptoms and you may need to adapt the way you carry out everyday tasks. While people will have different experiences of living with the disease, there are many common issues and challenges.
It is important to stay physically and mentally healthy by taking regular exercise to help muscle stiffness and relieve stress. A balanced diet is also important to give your body the nutrition it needs to stay healthy. Group therapies such as yoga and singing have been shown to be beneficial in helping sufferers ease their day to day symptoms.
A survey conducted by the charity Parkinson’s UK revealed that more than a third of people in the UK with the disease felt the need to hide their symptoms or lie about having the condition. This led to people struggling alone with their diagnosis which affected their emotional health.
Steve Ford, chief executive of Parkinson’s UK, said not getting help for the degenerative neurological condition was having a devastating impact on people’s emotional health.
He added: “We are determined that each and every person with Parkinson’s is aware of the support available so they can feel equipped to have these difficult conversations.”
If you would like to contact Parkinson’s UK, please click on the link.
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