There are many misconceptions about Parkinson’s disease. It is a complicated condition, and what you have read or heard may be incorrect. Physicians at Mischer Neuroscience Associates, affiliated with Memorial Hermann Health System, are setting the record straight and dispelling some common myths.
The exact cause Parkinson’s disease is unknown, but researchers believe there are both genetic and external factors that lead to the development of the disease. Sometimes Parkinson’s disease runs in families, which suggests a genetic (hereditary) factor; however, most cases (approximately 90 percent) occur in people without a family history of the disease. There is no single definitive genetic mutation that leads to all cases of Parkinson’s disease. Someone who has a mutation that is linked to Parkinson’s disease will not necessarily develop the disease.
Tremor is an easily recognizable symptom and is often associated with Parkinson’s disease. However, the disease affects different people in different ways, with a wide range of symptoms and severity. Some people with Parkinson’s disease do not experience tremor in the early stages of the condition, and some will never experience tremor at all. Tremor can be caused by conditions other than Parkinson’s disease, including stroke, multiple sclerosis or traumatic brain injury (TBI). When tremor is caused by Parkinson’s disease, it appears while at rest, when muscles are relaxed, and often begins on only one side of the body.
The disease itself does not cause uncontrolled movements. However, patients with Parkinson’s disease may also experience dyskinesia, which is characterized by these types of movements. Dyskinesia is a side effect of the medication Levodopa that is often used to treat Parkinson’s disease.
Many years ago, this was a common misconception that has been disproven by a large clinical trial. Although the myth has been debunked, some people still believe it is true. Levodopa, the main drug therapy used for Parkinson’s disease, is a strong medication that helps manage motor symptoms. In the past, some people believed that it was somehow toxic and caused the disease to progress more quickly. This is not true. The clinical trial that studied the medication found that patients who took Levodopa (instead of a placebo) had fewer symptoms. There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, but Levodopa is very successful in helping many patients manage the disease effectively.
Although Parkinson’s disease can often be well managed, there is no cure. The disease does not directly cause death; however, it can cause other conditions that are potentially deadly. As the disease progresses, you may become more vulnerable to falls, which could result in injury or death. Regular exercise and physical therapy are important parts of managing the condition. Another potential deadly result of Parkinson’s disease is infection. Sometimes the symptoms of infection are difficult to identify during the later stages of the disease, so regular checkups with a healthcare provider are essential.
Medication can effectively manage many of the motor symptoms Parkinson’s disease causes. For some patients, deep-brain stimulation (DBS, surgery) is an option to control abnormal brain impulses.
Researchers hope to identify the causes of the disease so they can find ways to stop or slow its progression.
Much more can be done. Staying as active as possible may lessen the severity of symptoms and help improve quality of life. A recent study found that patients with Parkinson’s disease who participated in weekly, hour-long exercise sessions were able to do more in their daily lives than those who did not.
DBS is an effective, proven procedure used when medications are less effective in managing motor symptoms such as tremor, stiffness and slowness of movement. It is a standard procedure that has been in practice for the past 20 years. To perform DBS, doctors place electrodes in the brain. DBS functions very similarly to pacemaker technology, except the wire is in the brain instead of in the heart.
Recently, several exciting breakthroughs have been discovered that help better understand the underlying pathology and how Parkinson’s disease functions. This current research should translate into actual clinical results in the next few years.
The symptoms and progression of the disease are highly unique to each patient. Even expert physicians cannot predict how the disease will progress.
The motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, including shaking and tremor, rigid muscles, slowness of movement, and a frozen or “flat” expression are commonly known characteristics of the disease. However, Parkinson’s disease can also cause other symptoms unrelated to movement. For some patients, the non-motor symptoms are actually more disabling than motor symptoms and should be discussed with a healthcare provider.
Non-motor symptoms include:
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