Seeking Expert Care for Parkinson's disease

By: Derek Neupert, MD, Board Certified Neurologist, Thibodaux Regional Health System

Recognized as Parkinson's Awareness Month, April is a good time to learn about the disease—it’s symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

As many as one million people in the U.S. and an estimated 10 million worldwide live with Parkinson's disease. We are familiar with many famous people who have Parkinson’s disease—Michael J. Fox, the late Muhammad Ali, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and singers Linda Ronstadt and Neil Diamond.

The diversity of its victims, across ethnicities, backgrounds and ages, as well as the disease's unpredictable progression continues to baffle the medical community. The cause continues to be largely unknown. It could be genetic or environmental. While the disease itself is not fatal, there are serious complications and there is no cure.

What Is Parkinson's disease?

A neurodegenerative disorder, Parkinson’s mostly affects dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain known as substantia nigra. Symptoms usually develop slowly. A significant number of neurons may have already been lost or impaired before someone experiences any signs that something may be wrong.

While Parkinson’s is typically diagnosed in people 50 and older, Young Onset Parkinson's Disease occurs in people under 50. At younger ages, it is generally considered to be genetic.

Michael J. Fox was diagnosed at 30 and has lived with Parkinson’s disease for half of his life. Now 60 years old, Fox continued working as an actor until 2020 when he retired due to the unreliability of his speech and increased memory problems.

As he and others have demonstrated, it is possible to continue an enjoyable quality of life with Parkinson’s. This, however, usually requires working closely with doctors, carefully following recommended therapies and making lifestyle adjustments.

To live well with Parkinson’s disease, first you need to understand the disease.

Early Signs of Parkinson’s disease

While symptoms typically appear in later stages of the disease, certain signs may indicate that you may have Parkinson’s. Keep in mind that many of these could also indicate other health issues.

Two of four main symptoms must be present over a period of time for a neurologist to consider a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis:

  • Shaking or tremors while at rest
  • Slowness of movement, called bradykinesia
  • Stiffness or rigidity of the arms, legs or hips that doesn't go away as you move
  • Trouble with balance and possible falls

Along with movement-related symptoms, other early non-motor signs include:

  • Change in handwriting—smaller letter sizes and crowded words
  • Loss of smell
  • Trouble sleeping, particularly quick, sudden jerks in lighter sleep
  • Constipation
  • Change in voice, becoming softer or hoarse sounding
  • Masked face—developing a constant serious, depressed or mad facial look
  • Change in posture—stooping, leaning or slouching when standing

If You Think You Have Parkinson’s disease

While Parkinson’s disease symptoms can mimic other conditions, it's best to discuss these with your primary care physician. If there are serious concerns, you may need to see a neurologist. A neurologist has experience and specific training to assess and treat Parkinson’s disease.

What to Do If You Have Parkinson’s disease

There is no one way to diagnose Parkinson’s disease, and there is no standard treatment. Treatments, based on individual symptoms, include medication, surgical therapy and lifestyle modifications such as getting more rest and exercise.

While many medications can improve disease symptoms, none can reverse its effects or halt disease progression. Patients are usually prescribed medications to increase dopamine levels in the brain.

Treatment also depends on how well patients cope with the diagnosis. The reaction to any serious illness can include denial, discouragement and depression. The quicker patients shift their mental attitudes and make necessary lifestyle adjustments, the better their chances for leading productive lives despite the disease.

To live and cope with Parkinson’s disease, patients need to:

  • Communicate openly with family and friends
  • Prioritize daily tasks and ask for help when necessary
  • Exercise regularly to help manage stress, which worsens PD symptoms
  • Seek profession help for depression, suicidal thoughts and relationship conflicts

If you are concerned about symptoms that might be related to Parkinson’s disease, contact Thibodaux Regional Neurology Clinic, 985.493.3090.