How Is Parkinson's Disease Treated?

Parkinson's is a progressive, neurological disorder that can affect anyone at any time. Parkinson's Awareness Week between 11th and 17th April aims to raise awareness of the condition that affects one in 500 of the general population. It is estimated that as many as 120,000 people in the UK have Parkinson's, and 4,000,000 people worldwide.

Parkinson's disease can affect all everyday activities including talking, walking, swallowing, writing, speaking and even smiling.

Parkinson's occurs when cells in the part of the brain that controls movement are lost.

These cells produce dopamine, a chemical messenger that enables people to perform smooth co-ordinated movements. It is not known why these cells die. Once 80 per cent of these cells have been destroyed the symptoms of Parkinson's appear.

Approximately 10,000 people are diagnosed each year in the UK. Most people are diagnosed over the age of 60, but younger people can also develop Parkinson's. It is estimated that one in 20 people with Parkinson's is under the age of 40 when first diagnosed.

The three main symptoms are shaking, muscle stiffness and slowness of movement however, not everyone will experience all three.

Other symptoms may include a lack of facial expression, an altered posture, tiredness, difficulties with balance, speech and writing, depression. A minority of people may experience problems with swallowing.

There is currently no cure, but drugs are the main treatment for Parkinson's. They work to restore the level of dopamine in the brain. The most commonly used drugs are Levodopa and Selegiline.

Treatments are initially very effective but long-term use results in severe side effects which can include confusion, hallucinations and fluctuations in the ability to perform movements.

Surgical techniques to treat Parkinson Disease are also used. These include lesioning (pallidotomy, thalamotomy and subthalamotomy), Gamma knife surgery, deep brain stimulation (thalamic, pallidal and subthalmic stimulation), and tissue implants.

Physical therapies such as physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy have an important role to play in the management of Parkinson's.

Professionals involved in the care of Parkinson's include general practitioners, consultant neurologists or geriatricians, nurse specialists, hospital and practice nurses, dieticians, social workers, PDS branch welfare visitors.

Research into future treatments continues. Gene therapy is a new approach to treating medical conditions, which can be described as the use of genes as drugs. It works by introducing normal genees into people with certain disorders to overcome the effects of defective genes that may cause or have a part to play in the development of the condition.

Unlike other treatments for Parkinson's aimed at modifying the symptoms, gene therapy treats the underlying progression of the disease. With gene therapy it is hoped that the progression of Parkinson's will eventually be halted and a cure found.

Stem cell research, uses the inner cell mass from an embryo, implanting it in the brain to replace those dopamine producing cells that have died, thereby reversing the progress of the disease. It offers real hope of a breakthrough in treatment for Parkinson's disease in the longer term.