Everything you need to know about Parkinson's disease

Everything you need to know about Parkinson's disease

Every hour in the UK, two people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Around 145,000 people are living with the condition (that’s about 1 in every 350 adults) and Parkinson’s UK estimates that 18,461 people will be diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2018. So, what exactly is Parkinson’s, what are the symptoms, and what treatments are available for those living with the disease?

What is Parkinson’s?

Simply put, people with Parkinson’s don’t have enough dopamine in their brain because some of the nerve cells that produce the chemical have died. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and sends signals to muscles to make them move. It is also responsible for the feeling of “reward” when people do something enjoyable, for example: eating delicious food or listening to a favourite song. Symptoms of Parkinson’s appear when the brain stops being able to make enough dopamine to control movement properly.

What are the symptoms?  

There are three main symptoms of Parkinson’s, although there are other secondary symptoms and the severity can vary from person to person. The main symptoms are: tremors and shaking, slowness of movement, and muscle stiffness. Parkinson’s can also affect sleep, digestion, mood, behaviour, and cognition.


What causes Parkinson’s

It is not known exactly what causes Parkinson’s, but it is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Parkinson’s UK says that most sufferers of Parkinson’s have “idiopathic Parkinson’s”, which means that there is no clear cause. It has been reported that only a very small number of people have the genes that can lead to an increased risk of developing the condition. However, there is some evidence that certain toxins, such as herbicides and pesticides, can cause the dopamine-producing brain cells to die. Interestingly, smoking tobacco and consuming caffeinated drinks (such as tea and coffee) correlates to a lower risk of developing Parkinson’s, although no one is sure why this is the case.


What kind of treatment is available for people with Parkinson’s?

There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s, but there are a number of different treatments to help people manage symptoms, such as physiotherapy, dietary therapy, speech and language therapy, medication, and surgery. All of these can help people with Parkinson’s enjoy a better quality of life.


Medication is the most commonly used treatment for Parkinson’s. Most of the drugs used to treat the condition work in one of three ways: increasing dopamine production in the brain, blocking the enzymes that break down dopamine, or acting as a substitute for dopamine. For those whose symptoms can’t be controlled with drugs, surgery can also be an option. The main type of surgery is deep brain stimulation (DBS) and involves implanting something called a “neurostimulator” in the brain, which is connected to a pulse generator (similar to a pace maker) in the chest or stomach area. When switched on, it allows electrodes to deliver stimulation to targeted areas of the brain and this can mitigate some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s. DBS is a non-destructive type of surgery and is reversible in many cases, but it is not suitable for everyone and does not stop Parkinson’s from progressing.


Regular physical exercise is also a very important method for managing the symptoms of Parkinson’s. It has been shown that doing just 2.5 hours of exercise a week can help to maintain mobility and strength and can also help manage other symptoms such as sleep problems, fatigue, and mood. Physiotherapy often involves recommending an exercise program and a physiotherapist can provide support and advice about participating in sports, stretching muscles to relieve stiffness, and maintaining mobility and good posture.


Similarly, dietary therapy can be helpful in dealing with symptoms such as constipation and problems swallowing food. Certain foods can prevent Parkinson’s medication from working properly, so a dietitian can recommend the best diet and provide advice on choosing nutritious food with plenty of vitamins and minerals. Eating a balanced diet can ease dietary problems, low mood, reduced bone density, and weight changes.

Good tips for those with Parkinson’s include:

·      eat a varied diet

·      eat regular meals

·      drink plenty of fluid

·      eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.


Tips for living with Parkinson’s

Along with regular exercise and a healthy diet, it is also important to maintain good mental and emotional well-being. As Parkinson’s can affect mood and behaviour, it can be helpful to attend a support group or counselling – for both those suffering with Parkinson’s and their carers. Furthermore, technology can provide help living with Parkinson’s and there are gadgets available to improve quality of life. These include automatic pill dispensers, specialised cutlery, and personal alarms and monitors. Parkinson’s UK are also working on developing a dedicated app for people living with Parkinson’s.


What support is available?

If you or someone you know is suffering from Parkinson’s, there is help available from Parkinson’s UK. They provide a helpline, local advisors, local support groups, a peer support service, and an online forum.  

If you have any questions, your GP or a Parkinson’s disease specialist nurse may be able to help. It can also be helpful to talk to someone like a psychologist or a trained counsellor.

The Parkinson’s UK helpline is available on 0808 800 0303, or email hello@parkinsons.org.uk