What do Michael J. Fox, Muhammad Ali, Pope John Paul II and Johnny Cash all have in common? If you answered Parkinson’s Disease, you are correct.
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the second most common degenerative brain disorder, after Alzheimer’s disease. PD is more common in men than in women. People of all ethnic groups can develop PD, but it is less common among African-American and Asian populations. Most often, symptoms begin when people are around 60 years of age.
Parkinson’s disease is related to a loss of nerve cells in your brain that produce a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is an important factor in controlling movement.
The exact cause of PD is not yet known. Family history, aging, or exposure to certain environmental toxins may contribute to the onset of PD. It is a chronic degenerative disease, which means that it gets worse over time; however, people usually do not die from PD.
Symptoms typically include stiffness (rigidity), shaking (tremor), slowness with movement, and balance problems. Because of these symptoms, people with PD are at risk of falling and breaking their bones. Treatment includes a combination of medication and physical therapy – and, in some cases, surgery.
The symptoms of PD can be very mild at first. A common early symptom is a tremor in one hand, most often when you are at rest. It might look like you are rolling a pill between your thumb and forefinger. Tremors also can occur in your legs or jaw when you are at rest. Since the tremors are most apparent during rest, they usually go away when moving and typically don’t interfere substantially with daily function.
There is no specific “test” like an x-ray or head scan that can be used to identify PD, so it can be difficult to diagnose. A diagnosis is usually made based on your medical history and a neurological examination. If your health care provider suspects that you have symptoms of PD, you may be referred to a neurologist for further examination.
The severity and type of symptoms of PD can vary widely. Some people have the disease for 20 to 30 years and have a slower progression and decline in mobility over a long period of time. For others, the disease progresses more quickly, and they may experience difficulty with mobility within 5 to 10 years.
To date, there is no known way to prevent PD. Studies have shown improved walking, balance, strength, flexibility, and fitness in people with PD who participated in an exercise program. However, these studies also indicated that people with PD gradually lost the gains they had made when their supervised exercise program ended. It’s important to work with your physical therapist to help develop good long-term exercise habits.
Your physical therapist will help you stay as active and as independent as possible. You will be taught special exercises and techniques to combat the symptoms of PD. Your treatment program should be customized to your needs and adjusted from time to time based on the progression of the PD and the effectiveness of your medication.
Darren Marchant, PT,MSPT,OCS
FIT Physical Therapy