What do Harry Truman, Mao Tse Tung, Francisco Franco, and Adolf Hitler all have in common? They were men, world leaders, and all suffered from Parkinson’s Disease.
Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive neurological disorder that affects over one million Americans. The disease generally occurs in the over-50 age group, with an alarming increase among younger adults.
Although investigators have uncovered many of the brain’s mechanisms, in Parkinson’s Disease, the cause of the disease is unknown. In a few patients, the disease may result from sleeping sickness (a worldwide epidemic between 1918 and 1932) or a viral infection (encephalitis) that damages the nervous system that controls movement, posture, balance, and walking.
Parkinson’s Disease is a disorder of the brain. The disease develops because of damage to the extra pyramidal nervous system. This system controls movement, posture, and walking. The primary symptoms are stiffness, tremor, slowness and poverty of movement, difficulty with balance and difficulty in walking. The secondary symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease may include depression, senility, postural deformity and difficulty in speaking. (Often the patient develops Alzheimer’s Disease late in the Parkinson’s Disease process.)
A diagnosis of this disease is based on a neurological examination, which includes evaluation of symptoms with their severity. If the symptoms are severe, a trial test of antiparkinsonian drugs may be used to further diagnose the presence of the disease. If the patient fails to benefit from the drug, the diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease should be questioned.
Administration of the drug Levodopa is the standard treatment, because Levodopa converts to dopamine in the brain and replaces the substance that is missing. Medications for this disease can be complicated and management of the medications is one of the biggest jobs for the patient and caregiver.
Parkinson’s Disease begins subtly and progresses gradually. In many people, it begins with a tremor in the hand while the hand is at rest (but disappears during sleep). The tremor may eventually progress to other body parts, even the eyelids. In many people, however, tremor is not the first symptom, or it may become less obvious as the disease progresses.
It is difficult for people with Parkinson’s Disease to initiate movements. Rigidity, immobility and stiffness cause many difficulties. Daily tasks, such as buttoning a shirt, can become increasingly harder. Even taking a step becomes an effort and balance can be hard to maintain. The face becomes less expressive because facial muscles move less.
Severe tremor can sometimes be aided through brain surgery in selected cases. Experimental studies also suggest that dopamine-producing nerve cells taken from human fetal tissue (and, more recently, stem cells from other tissue) and implanted into the brain may reverse the chemical abnormality. Meanwhile, until new approaches become standard practice, Parkinson’s Disease patients can help maintain independence by being under the close care of a specialist who can adjust medications. Regular exercise, physical therapy, mechanical aids such as wheeled walkers, and a nutritious and high-fiber diet can all help maintain functionality and health.
Tips for Living With Parkinson’s Disease
STRESS: Stress is cited as a trigger in the onset of many symptoms. Allowing ample time for such activities as dressing or bathing will help the patient avoid feeling rushed.
STIFF SIDE FIRST: Dress and undress from the stiffer side of the body first. Wear loose, lightweight clothing with elastic waistbands and Velcro fasteners instead of buttons or zippers. Use a shoehorn to put on shoes to save time and aggravation.
SLIPPERY WHEN WET: Bathrooms can be dangerous places for anyone with impaired balance. Place a non-slip rubber mat at the bottom of the tub or shower stall; use a tub bench or shower chair. Install grab bars or handrails. The first “save” will make the expense worthwhile!
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