Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Parkinson's Parade

Congratulations! You’ve got Parkinson’s Disease! Yes! You’ve hit the disease jackpot! The bells are ringing, the lights are flashing the crowd is hysterical because Parkinson’s is no mere disease, it’s a whole cream-center assortment of ailments packed into one! It’s a disease-a-ganza, a smorgasdisorder, a never-ending buffet of indignities, inconveniences and setbacks large and small.

Parkinson’s is no simple sickness. Instead it is a malady made up of a host of disorders that normally would be considered diseases themselves. But in Parkinson’s, they are mere symptoms, a part of the larger picture.

What do I mean by a “host” of disorders? I'll just run through a number of them off the top of my head. For starters, you look as though you are taking this stoically and with an Olympian calm. But that’s because you have lost the ability to use your facial muscles to express your inner feelings.

The inability to use your facial muscles this way, when it occurs on its own, can be a disease called “Moebius Syndrome”. It is rare, but it is no less a disease for that. One effect of this disorder is to cause its victims to lose their ability to express emotions subtle or dramatic. To have a frozen face is to present an eerily blank slate to the world. A world that often concludes that you are unreadable because you are up to no good, and treats you accordingly.

That should be plenty for any disease, but Parkinson’s is an overachiever. Parkinson's is just getting started!

So to frozen face, let’s add dystonia. Dystonia is the involuntary flexing or cramping of a muscle. Not only can this be painful, it can result in a person a enduring twisted hands or other body parts held at bizarre angles. Nasty enough, but only one marcher in the PD Parade.

Marching right behind dystonia, we have depression. Like PD, Depression can exhibit itself in many ways: the blues, lethargy, and slowness of movement are some. And on they come, Parkinson's sufferers are hosts to many more combinations of what could stand on their own as full-blown diseases. There's urgent bladder, tremor, cognitive impairment, sexual dysfunction, even loss of the sense of smell.

There is some good news here. Many of these problems can be alleviated for many years with proper medication and careful management of exercise and diet, But this industrious disease refuses to quit there! On top of all the first level effects, there exists a second tier of disease-like complications that set in over time from the medications. For instance?

Well, how about dyskinesia? That's the dance-like uncontrolled movements made as the brain becomes less able to handle the levels of medication in your system. Suddenly, you're moving too much instead of not at all. This does have its benefit on the exercise front. I lost at least ten pounds while undergoing endless bouts of unwanted movement. But it complicates anything requiring an accurate hand abominably, and you move in a spastic ballet that looks like Joe Cocker dancing Martha Graham.

But PD isn't all physical torture. Drug side effects can also involve mental disturbance. Because PD medication is involved with dopamine, which regulates feelings of reward as well as movement, the introduction of dopamine-like drugs can lead to compulsive addictions to things like gambling or sex.

Many, but not all these disorders can be held at bay with brain surgery. That's the good news. The bad? Many of these disorders can be held at bay, but it takes brain surgery.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, though it is an exhausting one. Oh, which reminds me, one more Parkinson's complication that is a disease in itself. Narcolepsy- the sudden dropping off into deep sleep, a surprise nap attack that strikes all at once without warning. But then again, with all those diseases on board, is it any wonder a person needs a little shut-eye?

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