Parkinson’s disease is caused by a loss of nerve cells in part of the brain called the substantia nigra. This leads to a reduction in the amount of the chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine plays a vital role in regulating the movement of the body and this reduction in dopamine is responsible for many of the symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
Exactly what causes the loss of nerve cells is unclear. Most experts think that a combination of genetic and environmental factors is responsible.
The three main symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are related to movement: involuntary shaking of particular parts of the body – known as tremors, muscle stiffness that can make everyday tasks such as getting out of a chair very difficult – this is known as rigidity and bradykinesia where physical movements become very slow.
A person with Parkinson’s disease can also experience a wide range of symptoms unrelated to movement (non-motor symptoms) such as depression, daytime sleepiness and dysphagia (difficulties swallowing).
There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s disease, though a medication called levodopa has proved effective in relieving symptoms. Unfortunately after around 3-5 years use the effectiveness of levodopa is reduced. After this time people can experience a sudden return of symptoms, (this is known as an ‘off episode’) as well an involuntary jerking of their muscles (dyskinesias). At this point additional medication is usually required.
There are also a range of non-pharmaceutical treatments that can be used to manage symptoms, such as speech and language therapy as well as physiotherapy which involve pain management techniques. Occupational therapy helps make everyday life easier.
A person with Parkinson's will only develop symptoms once around 80 per cent of these cells are lost, so they may have had the condition for some time before problems come to attention.
Among the first movement problems to be noticed are a fine resting tremor in an upper extremity or clumsiness in one hand (20 per cent of people report this first). With time, the disease may become more difficult to control and less responsive to drugs. Other problems such as dementia may also set in.
It is estimated that around 1 in 500 people are affected by Parkinson’s disease and there are currently 127,000 people in the UK with the condition. The average age for the symptoms to start is around 60; although around 1 in 20 cases first develop in people under 50. Men are one-and-half times more likely to get Parkinson’s disease than women.
Parkinson’s disease is not fatal, but the condition can place great strain on the body. Some people respond well to treatments and only experience mild to moderate disability, while others experience severe disability.
Due to the advancements in treatment, people with Parkinson’s disease now often have a normal or near-normal life expectancy.
For more information visit: http://www.parkinsons.org.uk/