This April, the Parkinson’s Foundation encourages family and friends to start a conversation about Parkinson’s disease. The hope is to raise awareness, and by doing so we hope better treatments can be developed and research can advance toward a cure.
Parkinson’s disease is a slowly progressing, degenerative disease that affects body movement. Symptoms vary from person to person, but a few common symptoms include tremors (shaking), stiffness of the limbs and neck, slowness of movement, and difficulty balancing. Parkinson’s disease symptoms are usually managed at first with medication. If the medication stops working and symptoms worsen, surgery may be considered.
About 1 million Americans and 10 million people globally have Parkinson’s disease. Usually, Parkinson’s disease affects people in late middle age, but it can show up in young adults, even teenagers, though that is rare. Most people with Parkinson’s disease (85 to 90 percent) develop the disease by chance, and very rarely it is inherited.
Although the cause of Parkinson’s disease is usually unknown, the symptoms are related to unusually low levels of dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical made in the brain. Low levels of dopamine are the result of dopamine-producing brain cells dying, but the reason these cells die is unclear.
Parkinson’s disease itself is not life-threatening, but the disease can dramatically change a person’s life. Case in point is patient Martha Strange. Martha’s symptoms started with a shaky knee and progressed to more tremors and difficulty walking. Medication helped for a while, but by age 69, she could no longer take part in the activities she loved most, like playing with her granddaughter or enjoying a round of golf.
When her doctor referred her to Columbia’s Director of Epilepsy and Movement Disorder Surgery, Dr. Guy McKhann, things began to change. After careful evaluation, Dr. McKhann suggested deep brain stimulation (DBS), the latest surgical advancement for treating Parkinson’s disease.
Dr. McKhann specializes in DBS for Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders at Columbia University Irving Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. He also conducts research to help the field better understand how DBS works and the best way to perform the procedure.
DBS is a treatment in which tiny electrodes are implanted in target areas of the brain. The electrodes are connected to a battery-operated device called a neurostimulator that is implanted in the chest. The device sends electrical impulses through electrodes to the brain to relieve symptoms such as tremor, slowness of movement and stiffness.
DBS has been used to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease since 1997. According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, DBS is the most important therapeutic advancement since the medication levodopa came out in the 1960s. Medications, including levodopa, are usually the first treatment patients with Parkinson’s disease receive. However, for some patients, the medication stops working and symptoms worsen, interfering with daily activities and life. Although not a cure, DBS can help patients for whom medication has stopped working.
Despite being nervous about having brain surgery, Martha says she instantly felt comfortable with Dr. McKhann. “He has such a way about him. He’s so nice and down to earth,” she says. “He’s adamant about doing things right. He’s very precise, very reassuring. I had no doubt that the deep brain stimulation was going to be fine.”
Dr. McKhann did the procedure, and the outcome was a success. Martha’s troublesome symptoms have subsided, and she’s back to living life and doing her favorite activities
However, DBS is not for everyone, and like any surgery, it must be carefully considered and discussed with your doctor.
The decision to undergo surgery for Parkinson’s disease or other movement disorders is reached only after much deliberation. We recommend that patients with mild symptoms not have this surgery. However, when conventional medical treatment has proved inadequate to control disabling symptoms, neurosurgical techniques such as deep brain stimulation may be an option. –Movement Disorders Surgery Center
At Columbia, our neurosurgeons not only provide top-notch care to patients with Parkinson’s disease but are also committed to developing better therapies. In fact, Columbia is one of 42 leading medical centers in the world designated as a Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s care. In the United States, only 28 centers have this designation.
In the modern age of smartphones and social media, spreading the word has never been easier. You can text, tweet or video chat with loved ones miles away. Or ditch the tech and savor a face-to-face conversation with family and friends to raise awareness about Parkinson’s disease.
So this April, help to raise awareness about Parkinson’s disease. To join the social media conversation, use the hashtag #StartAConversation.
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