Monday, October 29, 2007

Parkinson Disease: The Basics and Beyond

Parkinson Disease (PD) is a brain disorder. It affects roughly 1.5 million Americans, with 60,000 new cases diagnosed every year. It affects men and women almost equally, and appears most commonly after the age of 65, although 15% of cases are diagnosed in those under age 50.
When 80% of certain neurons in the brain (substantia nigra) die, symptoms of PD appear. These particular neurons are responsible for the creation of the neurotransmitter called dopamine, which allows for the smooth movement and coordinated functions of the body’s muscles. The primary symptoms, tremors and shaking, slowness of movement, stiffness and difficulty with balance, are present in nearly all who are diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Other signs may include stiff and cramped handwriting, expressionless facial appearance, softness of speech, shuffling gait and depression.

Diagnosing this disease is extremely difficult as there are no exact tests yet that can determine whether someone actually has the disease. It is more a process of elimination. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, you should consult a neurologist who can order the battery of tests necessary to discover what is going on. I know of several individuals who worked over the period of a couple of years with their neurologists trying to determine whether they were suffering from Parkinson Disease of something else.

Treatments almost always include taking some form of dopamine which, especially in early stages, eases the tremors, stiffening and walking difficulties. Over time, as more of the diseased neurons die, the effects of PD grow worse. Within the last few years an approach including brain surgery has become a salvation for some patients with this condition. It is not a cure, but does relieve some of the more severe effects for a period of time. The surgery is not for everyone, of course, and is usually not even considered unless all regimes with medication fail. I have an acquaintance who had the surgery a number of years ago, first on one side of his brain, then on the other. His symptoms diminished for many years. When I last saw him, however, he was experiencing a return of the tremors, stiffening and difficulty speaking and walking. He said he had no regrets, though, about having had the surgery when it first became available. It gave him a number of nearly symptom-free years that he enjoyed immensely. His spirits are good and he continues to lead a very productive life.

One of the many demanding challenges of PD involves walking. Often an individual will “freeze” when s/he comes to a curb, threshold or some other change in the walking surface. The brain recognizes this as a change, but cannot adapt the gait to it, so the legs and feet stop and cannot get moving easily again. While it has long been known that shining a light on the area just ahead of the feet can stimulate the brain to cause movement again, it’s the more recent introduction of the Laser Cane and Laser Light Walker introduced by U-Step a few years ago.

The Laser Cane is a bronze adjustable cane that looks for all the world like an ordinary cane. It has a small button that activates a red laser beam of light across the front of the cane when activated. Easy to use, this cane offers the user a handy and seamless way to project the beam of light necessary when episodes of freezing occur. It’s a good companion for those who suffer from PD, ALS and other diseases of the neurological system.

The Laser Light Walker has an additional feature of locking brakes that must be released by the individual before it moves. This gives extra security that the walker will not get away from the user. It only moves when s/he is ready to move. It has the easy to use button that engages the laser beam when the user needs it. It can be easily turned off when not needed. Its U-shaped base provides more security and as a result testing with the product reveal that most users can move three to four times faster with this walker than with traditional walkers. This walker also has a tighter turning radius, and at only 22 inches wide, it maneuvers easily through traditional doorways.

Actor Michael J. Fox brought attention to PD when he was diagnosed in 1991. In 1998 he revealed his disease to the public and has become one of the great champions for research. He founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation which focuses on research and support for those with the disease and their caregivers.

One of our colleagues and customers, Nick Peterson, has lived with Parkinson Disease since 1975 when he was 25 years old. Nick’s energy, liveliness and enthusiasm for life make him an inspiration to everyone. Among his many talents, Nick speaks nationally. His Colorado company, Shaky Speakers Presentations, sends him around the country with his inspirational and motivational messages. You can contact Nick at 888-757-7712 for more information about his presentations.

Do you have Parkinson Disease or know someone who does? We are always on the search of “people in the know” to give us first person accounts of experiences, treatments, tools that you find useful. Share your experiences here.

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