April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month. Did you know there are approximately 1.5 million Americans living with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) and nearly 60,000 new diagnoses each year? The disease usually affects people between the ages of 50-65, but 15% of those diagnosed are under the age of 50. PD occurs when there is a decrease in the production of dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical produced in the brain that controls movement. Diagnosing Parkinson’s can be difficult because there are no x-rays or blood tests that can confirm the disease. A diagnosis is made only after ruling out other conditions with similar symptoms. Being proactive in diagnosing, treating and understanding the disease as well as planning for the future can make living with Parkinson’s more manageable for the patient and their families.
The key signs of Parkinson’s Disease are tremor, slow limited movement, rigidity, and difficulty with balance. Tremor or shaking is usually the first symptom noticed. Tremor may affect the hands, arms, legs, or head and is the most common symptom, but not everyone with a tremor has the disease., Slowness of movement is caused by a delay in response time to a stimulus. Rigidity or stiff and aching muscles is another common early sign of PD and usually presents itself as a reduced arm swing on one side of the body when a person is walking. This symptom may also affect the muscles in the legs, face and neck. Difficulty with balance may result in shuffling of the feet, having trouble turning around and frequent falls. Just because one or more of these symptoms may present themselves, does not mean that a person has Parkinson’s Disease. It is important to seek medical advice in determining if these symptoms are related to PD or some other Illness with similar symptoms.
Once a diagnosis is made, it is important to develop an understanding of the disease and the affects it has on the body. Every patient handles the diagnosis differently, but maintaining a positive attitude is one of the healthiest things to do for yourself and your family. Develop an advisory team made up of physicians, family members, friends and other healthcare professionals to assist in treatment decisions and lifestyle changes. Effects of the disease such as fatigue and difficulty getting around can make activities of daily living (ADL) more difficult. However, adding adaptive equipment such as grab bars, wheelchairs, electric beds and handrails to the home can help the patient function more independently. As the disease progresses it is also important to seek help from an agency that specializes in ADL services such as housekeeping, bathing, walking assistance, grocery shopping, and companionship services to help protect the patient from falls.
While there is no known cure for Parkinson’s, medication can relieve many symptoms. Exercise, physical therapy, occupational therapy and a healthy and balanced diet can be helpful in all stages of PD to maintain strength, mobility and independence. As the disease progresses, a physician may adjust medications to help control the symptoms, balance quality-of-Iife issues and decrease the side effects of treatment.
As with any chronic illness, discuss any changes with a physician and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Being proactive is the best way to maintain a level of control over how to adapt to, and manage the disease.