April is Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month, a chance for all of us to learn more about the disease, increase our awareness of its symptoms and find ways to support those who are living with it. The Parkinson’s Foundation estimates that Parkinson’s affects nearly one million Americans and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) estimates that 110,000 Veterans have the disease. While living with Parkinson’s can be challenging, early diagnosis and the right treatment can help people live better.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder characterized by the impairment or death of dopamine-producing cells in the brain. Symptoms often start gradually, sometimes with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand, but as the disease progresses, people may experience a wide variety of symptoms. These symptoms can include:
Accurate diagnosis and the right treatment can help people with Parkinson’s disease continue to live full and vibrant lives.
- Muscle movement symptoms such as stiffness, delayed movement, poor balance and tremors
- Sleep disturbances or trouble sleeping
- Changes in your voice and its volume
- Urinary disfunction and constipation
- Loss of smell
- Cognitive deficits
It is important to remember that living with Parkinson’s disease is unique to each person. You cannot predict what symptoms you’ll get, how severe they will be or when you will get them. The Parkinson’s Foundation has a detailed list of symptoms and describes when it’s important to reach out to your health care provider to navigate early signs of the disease.
The exact cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, but scientists believe it can be linked to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The interaction between a person’s genes and the environment can be quite complex, but risk factors associated with Parkinson’s can include head injury, as well as exposure to pesticides. Veterans who have experienced traumatic events, significant head injury or who have been exposed to herbicides during service, including agent orange, may be at greater risk for the disease.
There is no standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease, as treatment for each person is based on his or her specific symptoms. However, getting the right care at the right time can make a big difference. Working with your doctor to create a treatment plan is an important first step. A treatment plan may include:
- Getting a referral to a neurologist
- Setting up care with a physical therapist, speech therapist or an occupational therapist depending on your symptoms
- Meeting with a social worker to talk about how the disease may affect your life
- Starting a regular exercise program to delay further symptoms
- Making sure you and your care team are aware of all available medications and therapies to help ease your symptoms and improve your quality of life
There are many resources available for people living with Parkinson’s disease. The Parkinson’s Foundation offers a wealth of resources including:
- Detailed information such as fact sheets, podcasts, webinars and more
- A Helpline staffed by nurses, social workers and health educators to help you answer all your questions
In addition, many Veterans with Parkinson’s disease have access to specialized medical care and financial assistance through VA.
- Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education and Clinical Centers (PADRECCs) offer care to all Veterans currently enrolled in VA Health Care System using state-of-the-art clinical care, education, research and national outreach and advocacy, and are staffed by movement disorder specialists, neurosurgeons, nurses, psychologists and other experts.
- Consortium Centers ensure accessibility and specialized care for Veterans who cannot visit a PADRECC facility.
- A YouTube playlist offers personal stories of Veterans living with Parkinson’s disease and how VA can help.
- Disability compensation may be available for Veterans with Parkinson’s disease. You can get help filing a claim on VA’s website or by talking to a Veterans Service Officer.
This month and throughout the year, we can all pledge to spread awareness and support those affected by the disease. Accurate diagnosis and the right treatment can help people with Parkinson’s disease continue to live full and vibrant lives.