When a patient comes to me long after he or she suspects that something is amiss, I tell them, “I understand.” I know why they had ignored their tremors for too long. I understand why they had dismissed their balance issues as insignificant.
Depictions of Parkinson’s disease in popular culture are grim, and nobody wants to be told that they have a disorder that is associated with loss of motor skills and cognitive decline. But I have seen so many patients thrive and flourish, buoyed by incredible innovations in medicines and physical therapy that exist today.
After I tell them that I understand, I let them know, “There is hope. You have Parkinson’s, but Parkinson’s doesn’t have you.”
The earlier we are able to diagnose and treat the degenerative nervous system disorder, the more success a patient will have in maintaining a normal and fulfilling life. Today’s medical treatments, surgical options, and physical therapies are helping to stave off the disease, and research is constantly seeking a cure.
In fact, many of my patients live lives so full and active that you wouldn’t know they have the disease.
That is why I was particularly heartened last year when actor Alan Alda announced that his Parkinson’s disease hasn’t slowed him down. His optimism and light are the antidotes to the fear and gloom that had, for too long, characterized this field.
“My life hasn’t changed much,” Alda told reporters. “I just applied my curiosity to it. I’m constantly reading and trying to figure out the best approaches.”
Among the most successful treatments available in controlling Parkinson’s tremors is deep brain stimulation (DBS). DBS surgery involves implanting a wire lead with electrodes through a small skull incision and positioning it within the targeted area of the brain. A neurostimulator implanted just under the skin and below the collarbone is connected through a lead up the back of the neck and into the targeted brain area. Electrical impulses are sent from the neurostimulator through the lead and into the brain to interfere with and block the electrical signals that cause Parkinson’s symptoms.
Not everyone with Parkinson’s is a candidate for DBS. But for those who are eligible for the treatment, improvements can drastically improve a person’s quality of life.
We have also been treating patients with the Duopa Dopamine pump, which allows us to control and fine-tune medication to the tiniest milligram to get the best therapy possible. Physical therapy advances are also proving effective in slowing down or staving off the effects of the disease. And recent research has found that even a virtual reality game is showing signs of helping patients keep their balance.
Life is just as fulfilling for our patients with Parkinson’s as for anyone else. We’re in an unprecedented stage in neurosciences, one in which incredible treatments are already available to the 5 million people worldwide who are living with Parkinson’s – with more innovative treatments and medications on the way.
So, if you notice a tremor or a change in your balance, I understand why you might meet it with fear. I understand why you might meet it with denial. But I see people every day who meet Parkinson’s with hope. And I’m seeing hope win.
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