April Is Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month

Groups raise awareness of the disease and its treatments 

More than 1 million people in the U.S. have Parkinson’s disease, says the National Parkinson Foundation, and as many as 60,000 new cases are diagnosed every year. Parkinson’s disease is a chronic, degenerative neurological disorder that affects one in 100 people over age 60. Parkinson’s strikes 50 percent more men than women. The average age at onset is 60, but some are diagnosed at 40 or younger.

Parkinson’s involves the malfunction and death of vital nerve cells in the brain, called neurons, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. The job of some of these dying neurons is to produce dopamine, a chemical that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. As the disease progresses, these brain neurons produce less and less dopamine, and the person loses movement control.

Common Symptoms

Symptoms vary from person to person, but primary motor signs include the following:

  • Tremor or the hands, arms, legs, jaw and face
  • Slowness of movement
  • Rigidity or stiffness of the limbs and trunk
  • Instability of posture or impaired balance and coordination

Medications and Treatments

Many medications and treatments are available to help manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s, but none yet reverse the effects of the disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, doctors may also suggest lifestyle changes, especially ongoing aerobic exercise. Physical therapy that focuses on balance and stretching may also be effective. Speech-language pathologists may help improve speech difficulties. In later cases, surgical procedures such as deep brain stimulation may be recommended.

What’s New in Parkinson’s Treatments?

Deep brain stimulation. For two decades, deep brain stimulation (DBS) therapy for Parkinson’s patients has been successful, says the National Parkinson Foundation. Evidence shows that DBS has meaningfully helped tens of thousands of patients worldwide, improving tremor, dyskinesia (involuntary movements), on-off fluctuations (reduced effectiveness of levodopa medication), and other Parkinson’s symptoms. DBS has fallen short in slowing disease progression, including walking, talking, and thinking. Some scientists advocate using guide tubes (straws that DBS leads are fed through to precisely place them into the brain) to deliver growth factors to improve brain function. There is also interest in developing DBS leads connected to pumps that could continuously supply factors to the brain while maintaining the electrical current derived from the DBS device.

The relationship between the gastrointestinal system and Parkinson’s disease. Evidence has been mounting in support of a relationship between the gastrointestinal (GI) system and Parkinson’s disease. Many pathologists and neurologists believe that Parkinson’s may start in the gut. Studies have found that many GI symptoms, such as constipation, occur as prominent and disabling Parkinson’s symptoms. People with Parkinson’s who are experiencing motor fluctuations that cannot be controlled by medication adjustment are advised to ask their doctor to test for H. Pylori (a common type of gut bacteria) infection.