MURRAY, Utah (ABC4 Utah) — Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. It develops gradually, sometimes starting with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. But while a tremor may be the most well-known sign of Parkinson’s disease, the disorder also commonly causes stiffness or slowing of movement.
In the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, your face may show little or no expression, or your arms may not swing when you walk. Your speech may become soft or slurred. Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsen as your condition progresses over time.
Although Parkinson’s disease can’t be cured, medications may markedly improve your symptoms. In occasional cases, your doctor may suggest surgery to regulate certain regions of your brain and improve your symptoms.
59-year-old Mike Sommercorn of Murray was diagnosed more than a year ago. He noticed uncontrollable tremors in his right hand.
What Dr. Katherine Widnell at Intermountain Medical Center Neurosciences Institute immediately sees too is Mike’s arm doesn’t swing when he walks.
Dr. Widnell, “If you have slowness on one side of your body, that’s not normal signs of aging, you need to get it checked out we can treat with medication.”
What his family sees is the extreme fatigue.
Patricia Sommercorn, “he was fast forwarding through a commercial and fell asleep doing it.”
Some patients may feel more stiffness, others the tremors are more predominant.
You may also notice a lack of facial expression.
Patricia, “when we took passport pictures for our cruise he thought he was smiling but he wasn’t. Dr. Widnell says he needs to practice in the mirror to feel how big he has to smile. In my words he’s aged 10 years in 1 year. You look forward to that retirement age and going off doing fun things. I think a lot of things we looked forward to we won’t be able to do.”
Dr. Katherine Widnell is a movement disorder specialist at the Intermountain Medical Center Neurosciences Institute. She’s helping Mike slow the progression of Parkinson’s
and manage symptoms through exercise and medication.
Dr. Widnell, ‘my job is to treat them well enough with medication so they can do the activity that will actually slow the progression.”
Doctors don’t know the cause of Parkinson’s but a stressful or traumatic event can trigger symptoms.
Patricia says the shaking became apparent right after the death of a grandson.
Dr. Widnell, “stress and anxiety and sleep deprivation always make tremor worse.”
Mike, “I try not to let it affect my everyday life. It’s not an immediate death sentence, it’s a type disease where the quality of life that goes down.”
The couple is learning to take one day and one symptom at a time.
Patricia, “it’s important to find the joy in the time that you have and don’t let the impact of the disease take over.”
Parkinson’s disease symptoms and signs may vary from person to person. Early signs may be mild and may go unnoticed. Symptoms often begin on one side of your body and usually remain worse on that side, even after symptoms begin to affect both sides.
Parkinson’s signs and symptoms may include:
- Tremor. A tremor, or shaking, usually begins in a limb, often your hand or fingers. You may notice a back-and-forth rubbing of your thumb and forefinger, known as a pill-rolling tremor. One characteristic of Parkinson’s disease is a tremor of your hand when it is relaxed (at rest).
- Slowed movement (bradykinesia). Over time, Parkinson’s disease may reduce your ability to move and slow your movement, making simple tasks difficult and time-consuming. Your steps may become shorter when you walk, or you may find it difficult to get out of a chair. Also, you may drag your feet as you try to walk, making it difficult to move.
- Rigid muscles. Muscle stiffness may occur in any part of your body. The stiff muscles can limit your range of motion and cause you pain.
- Impaired posture and balance. Your posture may become stooped, or you may have balance problems as a result of Parkinson’s disease.
- Loss of automatic movements. In Parkinson’s disease, you may have a decreased ability to perform unconscious movements, including blinking, smiling or swinging your arms when you walk.
- Speech changes. You may have speech problems as a result of Parkinson’s disease. You may speak softly, quickly, slur or hesitate before talking. Your speech may be more of a monotone rather than with the usual inflections.
- Writing changes. It may become hard to write, and your writing may appear small.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you have any of the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease — not only to diagnose your condition but also to rule out other causes for your symptoms.
Coping with Parkinson’s disease can be frustrating because of its common symptoms—trembling, stiffness (often called rigidity), slow movements, and the loss of balance and coordination. A good deal of that frustration comes from the loss of control that you once had over your body. It can also be emotionally overwhelming to know that there is currently no cure for the disease.
Nonetheless, people have a number of tools to better manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and live a healthy, enjoyable life.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet and drinking plenty of water are important for everybody, but especially when you have Parkinson’s disease. That’s because people with Parkinson’s are more likely to get bone fractures from falling, have constipation, or have trouble maintaining their weight. Staying hydrated and getting the best possible nutrition through fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein can help counteract these effects.
Stay on top of your medicine
Medicines for Parkinson’s disease have come a long way. Often a combination of drugs is successful in replacing the naturally occurring brain chemical dopamine that is in short supply when you have Parkinson’s. Certain drugs improve only certain symptoms, and you’ll want to work with your doctor to find the best combination for you. Know that as the disease progresses, you may need to try other drugs and other combinations of drugs.
A treatment called deep brain stimulation, approved by the FDA, seems to provide additional relief for some people. It involves implanting a small electrical device in the brain that can ease Parkinson’s symptoms.
Talk with your doctor about which of these options might be the right treatment approach for you.
Work with an occupational therapist
An occupational therapist is an important member of your treatment team. Working closely with this medical professional will help improve your quality of life. An occupational therapist will typically meet with you in your home, review your daily routine, and provide you with techniques and tools that will help you carry out your activities of daily living more effectively, even with the challenges presented by your illness.
Get daily living aids that can help you stay independent and safe
Among the tools that an occupational therapist might recommend are railings around your toilet and bathtub, a seat to use in the tub or shower, a pump soap dispenser instead of bar soap, an electric toothbrush and razor, a cordless phone that you can carry around with you, nonskid socks and Velcro-closure shoes, and an appropriate cane, walker, rollator or wheelchair to help you move around effectively.
Get a good night’s sleep
Studies show that about 3 in 4 people with Parkinson’s also have sleep problems, but it’s crucial to your overall health to get a good night’s sleep. Try strategies like creating a relaxing bedtime routine, going to bed at the same time every night, making your bedroom comfortable, dark and cool, and avoiding stimulants, such caffeine, alcohol, exercise and even watching TV, right before bedtime. If you are still having sleep problems, ask your doctor for a referral to a sleep specialist.
Take care of your mental health
About half of all people with Parkinson’s deal with some sort of mood disturbance, such as depression or anxiety, at some point. These mental disorders will only further compound the problems of Parkinson’s, so it’s critical to get needed treatment, possibly medicine or counseling from a mental health professional.
Have an educated helper
Most people with Parkinson’s disease need the help of one or more caregivers to get through the day. If you are a caregiver, one of the most important things you can do is read up on Parkinson’s disease, so that you can understand what your loved one is going through. Also, be involved by attending doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions. Often, these professional healthcare providers will have tips and advice for the caregiver as well as the person living with the disease.
In Parkinson’s disease, certain nerve cells (neurons) in the brain gradually break down or die. Many of the symptoms are due to a loss of neurons that produce a chemical messenger in your brain called dopamine. When dopamine levels decrease, it causes abnormal brain activity, leading to signs of Parkinson’s disease.
The cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, but several factors appear to play a role, including:
Your genes. Researchers have identified specific genetic mutations that can cause Parkinson’s disease, but these are uncommon except in rare cases with many family members affected by Parkinson’s disease.
However, certain gene variations appear to increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease but with a relatively small risk of Parkinson’s disease for each of these genetic markers.
- Environmental triggers. Exposure to certain toxins or environmental factors may increase the risk of later Parkinson’s disease, but the risk is relatively small.
Researchers have also noted that many changes occur in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease, although it’s not clear why these changes occur. These changes include:
- The presence of Lewy bodies. Clumps of specific substances within brain cells are microscopic markers of Parkinson’s disease. These are called Lewy bodies, and researchers believe these Lewy bodies hold an important clue to the cause of Parkinson’s disease.
- Alpha-synuclein is found within Lewy bodies. Although many substances are found within Lewy bodies, scientists believe an important one is the natural and widespread protein called alpha-synuclein (A-synuclein). It’s found in all Lewy bodies in a clumped form that cells can’t break down. This is currently an important focus among Parkinson’s disease researchers.
While there is no cure for this degenerative disease, there are treatments to help control the symptoms associated with the disease.
Parkinson’s disease is a clinical diagnosis, meaning there is no lab test or medical scan that confirms a diagnosis. Oftentimes those methods are used to rule out other diseases, but the actual diagnosis is based on a clinical exam.
Following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, medications are used to help address the symptoms.
“Medications are not the only treatment strategy for Parkinson’s,” said Dr. Huan. “Exercise and physical therapy are also very important elements used in addressing the symptoms of the disease.”
If the effectiveness of the medications decreases as the disease progresses, surgery may be an option. Deep Brain Stimulation can help control the tremors associated with Parkinson’s. During the procedure, a neurosurgeon will implant electrical leads into the brain and connect them to a small device that is placed in the patient’s chest similar to a pacemaker. The device gives off electrical pulses that correct the misfirings of the brain that are causing the Parkinson’s symptoms.