April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month. The month focuses on educating the public about a disease that strikes 1 in every 100 North Americans, commonly people over the age of 50.
Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological disease linked to a deficiency of brain cells that generate dopamine, a neurotransmitter. The lack of dopamine leads to the tremors, movement difficulties, and other problems associated with Parkinson’s.
There are early signs that can tip off a person with Parkinson’s and slow down its progressive nature.
Linda Pituch, Patient Services Manager of the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, offers a comprehensive list of prominent symptoms.
Initial symptoms that usually go undiagnosed:
. loss of sense of smell
. sleep disturbance
Progressive symptoms where a person and their physician will become concerned:
. Tremor in a finger
. Slow movement (Bradykinesia)
. Problems with falling
. Loss of balance
The diagnosis of Parkinson’s can pose problems. Heather Gray, the Scientific and Medical Affairs Assistant of the American Parkinson Disease Association, said that it can be confused with other conditions, like Parkinsonism, also called Parkinson’s syndrome, which can strike young people. She also mentioned that Multiple Sclerosis can be misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s.
Gray said that Parkinson’s can be mistaken for a mild stroke because a stroke controls the area of the brain that controls movement – Substantia nigra – the sector affecting Parkinson’s.
"An MRI – Magnetic Resonance Imaging – will differentiate between a stroke and Parkinson's," said Gray. "That determination is a long road, and not easy on the patient, but is necessary." Gray added: “It's very complex. There are a lot of factors in this disease."
Margaret Stern, the Chair and CEO of the Michael Stern Parkinson's Research Foundation agreed. “The warning signs vary enormously from person to person.” A valuable tip from Stern is that between five to ten per cent of Parkinson’s cases are genetic. “If they know about it, they must tell their physician."
Pituch said that some medical doctors don’t know enough about Parkinson’s to make a diagnosis. “The patient needs to bring up the problem by highlighting the symptoms,” she said, “then request a session with a movement disorder specialist, a neurological specialist focusing on Parkinson’s.”
As the disease progresses, the Parkinson’s patient will need to rely more on a caregiver or care partner to maintain the schedule with the movement disorder specialist. The care person should attend the patient’s appointments to hear the doctor’s recommendations. Caregivers will need to encourage physical activity and obtain advice on specific types of therapy for their dependant.
Medication plays a big part in keeping Parkinson’s in check. Heather Gray provided three medication classifications:
. Dopamine replacements
. Dopamine preservers
. Dopamine mimics
Is there hope for a cure? Gray feels the big breakthrough may be preventative-based, finding the earliest symptoms of Parkinson’s before it progresses.
Spirits are high in April as everyone in the Parkinson’s community pulls together to spread awareness.