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World Parkinson’s Day: An Explainer

Learning that someone close to you has Parkinson’s – or that you’re facing the condition yourself – can be daunting news but there have been improvements in recent years to help people maintain a high quality of life. Some 12,000 people in Ireland suffer from Parkinson’s. As that number is set to double over the next 20 years, it’s important to get up-to-speed on the progressive disorder.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms are mild when they first appear, but gradually worsen over time. The most common symptom is a tremor which will usually begin in the arm or hand. The person’s physical movements will also be slower than normal, making everyday tasks harder. There can also be pain associated with muscle stiffness.

What causes Parkinson’s?

The condition is caused by the loss of nerve cells in the parts of the brain responsible for movement. Here, a chemical called dopamine acts as a go-between for the brain and nervous system. A loss of nerve cells reduces the amount of dopamine in the brain, slowing movement. 

The cause is as yet unknown. We do know from studying the brains of people with Parkinson’s that certain proteins can develop into masses called Lewy Bodies inside nerve cells, perhaps contributing to the loss of these cells in affected areas.

Can it be treated?

Sadly, there is currently no cure available for Parkinson’s. However, there are treatments available that can relieve symptoms. Medications can be prescribed to steady tremors by increasing or maintaining dopamine levels. 

One of the most common is a medication called levodopa, or l-dopa for short. Levodopa is absorbed by your brain and turned into dopamine, aiding movement. Although its effects wear off due to long-term use, levodopa improves symptoms dramatically at first. 

Other avenues include supportive therapies like physiotherapy, speech therapy to help with swallowing difficulties and occupational therapy to help with practical things like getting dressed and going out. These treatments are important for giving the person as much independence as possible. 

If you’re concerned about any of the symptoms mentioned above, such as difficulty moving or tremor, the best thing to do is speak with your GP. 

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