What is Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s disease is a condition that is caused by a problem in the brain. It usually starts when you’re over 50, but becomes increasingly common as people age.
People who have Parkinson’s disease are at higher risk of then having dementia. Around half the people with Parkinson’s disease develop dementia, usually once they are over 70.
Related: Find out more about treatments and therapies for Parkinson's disease
Diagnosing Parkinson’s disease
Unlike some of the conditions that affect us, there’s no test that can show that you definitely have Parkinson’s disease. A diagnosis can take some time, as the condition affects different people in different ways.
In fact everyone with Parkinson’s disease – and there are thought to be around 127,000 with this condition - has their own personal set of symptoms. And the order in which you have the symptoms, and the rate at which they become worse, is also different for everyone with this condition.
The symptoms usually start in a minor way, and become more severe with time. This can make it more difficult to reach a diagnosis in the early stages.
Parkinson’s disease is caused when there is too little dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a vital chemical, which plays an important part in how our bodies move. A loss of dopamine causes a large proportion of the symptoms that come with Parkinson’s disease.
Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
These are the main symptoms of Parkinson’s
- Tremor – when part of your body shakes uncontrollably
- Rigidity – stiffness in your limbs
- Slowing down of movement
The other physical symptoms of Parkinson’s include:
- Problems with bladder and bowels – constipation, and overactive bladder
- Eye and sight problems - blurred and double vision
- Falling and feeling dizzy
- Fatigue that can happen at any time
- Freezing – suddenly stopping when walking, talking, cleaning your teeth, etc. Feeling as though your feet are stuck to the ground
- Pain – this can be a serious problem for some people, and can take various forms, including aches in the joints, arms and legs, and shooting pains
- Restless legs syndrome – needing to move your legs, and also feelings of burning, tingling, itching etc.
- Skin and sweating problems – skin can feel itchy and sore, sweaty or oily
- Sleeping problems – trouble sleeping at night, and difficulty turning over in bed, sleepwalking, and vivid nightmares
- Speech and communication problems – slurred speech, hoarse voice, spidery handwriting, fewer facial expressions
- Swallowing problems – trouble chewing and swallowing, loss of appetite, weight loss, and food sticking in the throat when eating
How Parkinson’s disease can affect mental health
People with Parkinson’s can also have difficulties with mental health issues.
Anxiety can bring with it feelings of being constantly worried, feeling breathless and having a racing heart. Relaxation techniques can help ease your anxiety, as can counseling, or cognitive behavioural therapy.
Parkinson’s dementia, and Dementia with Lewy Bodies can also affect some people with Parkinson’s, making it hard for them to concentrate, and to carry out normal tasks, such as washing and getting dressed.
Other mental health problems that can be a part of this illness include depression, difficulty remembering, and finding it hard to make decisions.
What to do if you suspect Parkinson’s disease
Because the symptoms of Parkinson’s can vary so much from one person to another, this condition can be hard to spot in someone close to you, or in yourself.
If you are worried about yourself, (or a family member or a friend,) see your GP. This may help put your mind at rest. Or it may lead to an appointment with a specialist for tests, and if needed, help and treatment.
Treatment for Parkinson’s disease
While Parkinson’s disease can’t be cured yet, there are treatments that can help reduce the effect of your symptoms, and help you continue to make the most of your life for as long as possible.
The treatments can be divided into three types.
Supportive therapies include physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
There’s also medication that can help reduce the effect of your symptoms.
If your specialist feels it would be helpful, you may also be offered surgery.
Physiotherapy can help you in a number of ways. Your physiotherapist will suggest exercises for you to do at home that will help you to stay fit.
The exercises will be aimed at improving your flexibility, and your muscle strength, and helping to reduce pain. Improving your strength and your balance is particularly important, as it should help to prevent you falling.
Ask your GP, Parkinson’s nurse, or specialist to refer you to a physiotherapist.
Related: The health benefits of seeing a physiotherapist
Speech and language therapy can help if you have difficulty swallowing and/or speaking, by giving you exercises to do.
Occupational therapists are trained to help you with day-to-day activities that you’re finding difficult to manage. This can include washing, getting dressed, even making cups of tea. Their approach is very practical, and they may suggest aids, such as stair rails, to help make your home as safe as possible.
Dietitians can provide useful advice on how changing your diet can help improve some of your symptoms. For instance, they can suggest changes that can help reduce constipation, and improve your intake of vitamins and minerals.
Ask your GP, specialist or Parkinson’s nurse to refer you to a dietitian.
Related: Could I benefit from seeing a dietitian?
Speech and language therapists can help if you are having trouble communicating – one of the areas of your life that is likely to be affected by Parkinson’s. They may suggest exercises, and ways to make your voice stronger.
They can also help you if you are having difficulties with your facial expression (which may look frozen, and without expression), and with swallowing.
Ask your GP, specialist or Parkinson’s nurse to refer you to a speech therapist. Alternatively, you can do this yourself, by contacting the speech and language therapy department at your nearest hospital.
Surgery for Parkinson’s Disease
If medicines aren’t controlling your symptoms, it may be worth talking to your specialist or Parkinson’s nurse about the possibility of surgery. However, surgery doesn’t help everyone, and some people with Parkinson’s find that their situation can’t be helped by surgery.
Deep Brain Surgery (DBS) is the operation most often used to treat Parkinson’s. It may help you to control your movements, such as tremor and rigidity.
In some cases it can also mean that you can reduce the amount of medicine you take. This, in turn may reduce the side effects the medicine causes.
Deep Brain Surgery involves having very fine wires with electrodes at their ends implanted into your brain. These wires have extensions that go under the skin behind your ear, and then go down your neck. The ends of these extensions connect to a pulse generator that is fitted under your skin, often over or near your chest. (Like a pacemaker.)
When this device is turned on, the electrodes send high frequency stimulation the part of the brain they’re fitted to.