Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disease that occurs when your body stops producing enough of a chemical called dopamine. In a normally functioning human brain, neurons produce the dopamine needed to relay messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Those messages are responsible for coordinating smooth muscle movements. When more than 60% of these neurons are damaged, brain cells become impaired. The result is neurodegeneration and Parkinson’s. The majority of people who develop the disease are over the age of 50. PD is the 14th leading cause of death in the United States. While there is no cure, there are treatments for Parkinson’s symptoms that can help to improve quality of life.
Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease
In the earliest stages, Parkinson’s symptoms can be vague and random. Not everyone develops all of the warning signs. According to the National Parkinson’s Foundation, the most recent theory is that the early signs of PD occur in the body’s enteric nervous system. Instead of the impaired motor skills we typically associate with Parkinson’s, early symptoms include a loss of sense of smell, constipation, and sleep disorders.
As the neurons become more impaired, the more classic movement disorder symptoms of PD appear. They can include:
• Stiffness of the muscles that approaches paralysis
• Excessive shaking that can appear to be almost like a seizure
• Exaggerated movements
• Skin problems
• Shuffling gait
• Trembling hands
• Difficulty swallowing or forgetting to swallow
• Blank, unblinking stare known as “facial masking”
• Mumbled speech
• Cognitive problems
• Dementia in advanced stages of PD
Treatments for Parkinson’s Disease
In helping to improve the quality of life for people living with Parkinson’s, clinicians might employ a variety of methods designed to control the symptoms of the disease. They range from a few medications proving to be effective in the short-term to deep brain stimulation (DBS). Other non-medical interventions include ballroom dancing and laughter.
• The use of medication to treat PD aims to slow the loss of dopamine and to improve the symptoms. Sinemet is currently proving to be the most effective. Its primary ingredient, Levodopa, turns in to dopamine in the brain. For many people, the drug only provides relief from symptoms for a few hours after taking it. Others develop intolerable side effects.
• Deep brain stimulation is a surgical procedure during which wires are implanted between the brain and the chest. It has been shown to improve the movement problems and depression associated with PD. A drawback for some patients considering the surgery is the long length of the operation which requires patients to be mostly awake.
• LSVT LOUD is proving to be an effective way to treat the language impairments of Parkinson’s. This therapy helps improve the volume of a patient’s voice, intonation and articulation. It works by stimulating the muscles of the larynx. Patients participate in 16 speech therapy sessions over the course of 30 days. During these sessions, they learn to recognize and self-generate the loudness of their voice. Results can last up to two years.
• LSVT BIG takes the same idea of exaggeration that is used in the original LSVT LOUD. Physical and occupational therapists work with patients who are at all different stages of PD. They help them use repetitive and exaggerated core movements that are a series of stepping and rocking activities performed in a lunge position. If necessary, these sessions can be done in a seated position. Patients see improvement in flexibility, endurance and balance.
• Exercise, sleep and a balanced diet can also help to alleviate the depression that often accompanies Parkinson’s. Walking is considered one of the most efficient and safest forms of exercise for those with PD.
• Researchers are also finding humor to be a very effective therapy for depression.
• A non-medical intervention proving successful for some people living with PD is dance. Classes dubbed, “Dance for PD” are popping up across the country. Working from the knowledge that exercise has been shown to ease the symptoms and sometimes slow the progression of Parkinson’s, these dance classes focus on being mindful of the body’s movements. Simple, subtle movements are performed repetitively. Dancers may sway like willow trees in the wind or sit and salute the sun. Dancing also seems to help improve the cognitive problems people with Parkinson’s live with each day.