Parkinson's disease is one of the most common neurological disorders, affecting about 1 million Americans. Despite its prevalence and the increased awareness due to celebrities like Michael J. Fox who have Parkinson's, the disease is often misunderstood.
Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurological condition that affects movement and body functions. Its four primary effects are tremors, rigidity, slow movement and unstable posture.
The disease is caused by the death of neurons deep in the brain, which decreases the level of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in controlling voluntary movement. Parkinson's generally develops after age of 65, but about 15 percent of patients have a young onset form of the disease that can appear before age 50.
Here are some common myths about Parkinson's and the reality about the disease.
Myth: All individuals with Parkinson's disease have tremors, and tremors are always caused by Parkinson's disease.
Reality: While tremor is the most recognized symptom of Parkinson's disease, many Parkinson's patients do not have tremors but have rigidity and slow movements. Thirty percent of patients do not have tremors at the onset of the disease. Tremors can be caused by many other conditions.
Myth: Parkinson's disease causes individuals to have extra, uncontrolled movements.
Reality: The extra movements — called dyskinesia — associated with Parkinson's disease aren't caused by Parkinson's. They're actually a side effect of the medication used to treat the disease.
Myth: Only one part of the brain, the substantia nigra, is involved in Parkinson's disease.
Reality: The latest findings suggest that Parkinson's disease affects multiple areas of the brain.
Myth: Parkinson's disease is strictly a movement-related disease.
Reality: Because Parkinson's isease affects multiple areas of the brain, it has an array of nonmotor symptoms, including swallowing disturbances, whispering, loss of smell, cognitive difficulties, depression, loss of impulse control, sleeping problems and bladder problems/constipation.
Myth: Parkinson's Disease is caused by genetics.
Reality: There is no known cause of Parkinson's Disease. There seem to be many factors at play, including environmental and genetic factors. Only 5-10 percent of cases have a true genetic link.
Myth: Parkinson's disease is curable.
Reality: There is currently no cure for Parkinson's disease, partly because we still don't understand the causes. We need to further examine the nonmotor symptoms as possible key indicators in identifying causes and cures.
Myth: Medication is the only treatment.
Reality: There are options to treat and manage symptoms. Parkinson's disease patients are initially treated with medication, but over time it becomes less effective. The next line of treatment is deep-brain stimulation, which involves placing electrodes in the brain to regulate abnormal brain impulses. Deep-brain stimulation can be a life-changing therapy to improve quality of life and restore order to an otherwise chaotic world.
There are many resources available for people with Parkinson's disease and their loved ones, including information on coping, support and lifestyle management.
To find local and regional support groups and resources, visit the University of Kentucky Parkinson's Disease Support Groups website at UKHealthCare.UKY.Edu/Parkinson.aspx
More information is available through the National Parkinson Foundation at Parkinson.org, and the Phinney Foundation at DavisPhinneyFoundation.org.
Dr. Craig G. van Horne is an associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.