What is Parkinson's?

Parkinson disease, first identified as a "Shaking Palsy" by James Parkinson in 1817, results when some of the nerve centers in the brain lose their ability to regulate movement of muscles.

Parkinson's is a slowly progressive and chronic disorder that is characterized by a decrease in spontaneous movements (bradykinesia), gait difficulty, impaired balance and coordination, rigidity (or stiffness of the limbs and trunk), and tremor (in hands, arms, legs, jaw and face). Patients may also have difficulty walking, talking or completing simple tasks. Depression is also a common symptom of the disorder.

Parkinson's occurs when dopamine-producing nerve cells, known as neurons, die in certain parts of the brain stem, most often the substantia nigra. Dopamine is a chemical responsible for transmitting signals within the brain. The loss of dopamine causes the nerve cells to fire in an uncontrolled manner, leaving patients unable to direct or control their movement normally.

Incidence

Parkinson's impacts men, women and even some children. The majority of patients are over 50 years of age. However, as doctors have learned to better diagnose the disorder, there has been an alarming increase in the number diagnoses of much younger people.

Currently, there are more than three million Americans with Parkinson's-like symptoms, half of whom have been diagnosed with the actual disease. In this country alone, approximately 60,000 cases of Parkinson disease are diagnosed each year. By the time that a patient is diagnosed, they are likely to have already lost 60-80% of their dopamine-producing cells.

Treatment

The general goals when treating the disorder are to relieve disabilities and to balance the Parkinson's-related problems with the side effects of the medications.

A variety of medications may provide temporary relief of some of the symptoms. The drug levodopa, for instance, has been a standard treatment for Parkinson's. Levodopa is converted into dopamine, thereby replacing the substance that the patient's body is failing to produce. The drug does not prevent or alter the progression of the disease.

Due to the complicated nature of Parkinson's, treatment is extremely individualized. It is necessary for patients to work closely with their neurologists and therapists to customize a program suitable for their particular and changing needs. At present, there is no way to predict or prevent Parkinson's.