Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, degenerative neurological condition that affects the control of body movements. It causes trembling in the hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face; rigidity or stiffness of the limbs or trunk; slowness of body movements; and unstable posture and difficulty in walking. Early symptoms are subtle and occur gradually.
It happens when the neurons (nerve cells) that normally produce dopamine in the brain gradually die. The death of these cells leads to abnormally low levels of dopamine, a chemical which helps relay messages between areas of the brain that control body movement. Low levels of dopamine give rise to difficulty in controlling muscle tension and muscle movement, both at rest and during periods of activity.
Parkinson’s disease currently affects about 40,000 Australians. Approximately one to two people per 1,000 are estimated to have the disorder, with the incidence increasing to one in 100 of people over the age of 60. It is slightly more common in men than in women.
So far, scientists have not determined the reason why some people develop Parkinson’s disease and others do not. Suggested causes include environmental factors such as pesticides, toxins and chemicals; genetic factors (although the disease appears to be inherited in only a small percentage of cases) and head trauma.
A variety of medications enable the disease to be managed and provide dramatic relief from the symptoms. In some cases, surgery is an appropriate treatment. Some doctors recommend multi-disciplinary treatment by physiotherapists, dietitians and counsellors. No two people will experience the condition in the same way, so management will vary.