April is National Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month

Published 12:22 pm Tuesday, April 19, 2022

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My grandfather suffered from Parkinson’s Disease (PD), and, as a young nurse I remember well how much he endured through the disease. PD is a nervous system disorder that affects movement. Symptoms start gradually and progress over time. In the early stages of the disease, your face may show little expression, your speech may slur, and your arms may lose their swing as you walk. 


Each year 60,000 people in the US are diagnosed with PD. While there’s no cure at this time, there are medications that can improve your symptoms considerably. In some cases, surgery can improve symptoms by regulating certain regions of your brain.

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As is the case with many diseases, the symptoms of PD can differ from person to person. Often the condition will present on one side of the body, eventually affecting both sides.


Parkinson’s symptoms may include:


Tremor. Mild shaking is usually seen first in a limb, hand, or fingers. Tremors may even be observable when the limb or hand is at rest.


Slowed movement. As PD progresses, you may notice that your actions are slowed. For example, your walking steps will often become shorter, and you may drag one or both of your feet. And getting out of bed will probably become more challenging. 


Rigid muscles. Muscles can stiffen in any part of your body, limiting your range of motion.


Posture and balance are afflicted. As the disease progresses, expect to become stooped and have balance problems.


Speech issues. Over time, you may speak quicker, slower, softer, with a slur, or without emotion.


Writing changes. As your muscles stiffen and tremors worsen, writing may become harder.




PD often includes additional problems, which can be treatable:


Thinking difficulties. You may experience issues with thinking in later stages. 


Depression. Depression and anxiety are expected as the realization of the impending symptoms sets in. 


Chewing and swallowing. As muscle control becomes more involved, difficulty chewing and swallowing may lead to choking and drooling. 


Bladder problems. You are likely to experience incontinence and difficulty urinating.


Constipation. The affliction of the involuntary muscles of your digestive tract will cause you to develop constipation.




We don’t know what causes Parkinson’s, but the gradual breakdown of neurons in the brain is thought to cause the disease. When levels of dopamine decrease, the resulting abnormal brain activity leads to symptoms of the disease.


Researchers have found genetic mutations in Parkinson’s patients. Still, a direct correlation between passing the disease to your children remains unclear. Scientists have also seen some indication that environmental toxins may play a role in developing the disease, as do traumatic head injuries.


Risk factors include:


Age. Parkinson’s disease is found more often in people over 60.


Heredity. If a parent has had Parkinson’s, your chances of developing the disease may slightly increase. 


Gender. Men are more likely to develop Parkinson’s.


Toxin exposure. We’re finding that people who have regular and prolonged exposure to pesticides and herbicides may be at an increased risk.




Because the cause of Parkinson’s is unknown, prevention is also unknown. Some research indicates that regular exercise might reduce the disease’s risk. Other studies suggest that people who consume caffeine are less likely to get Parkinson’s. However, there is currently not enough evidence to say with certainty how caffeine may protect against becoming a Parkinson’s patient.


St. Luke’s Parkinson’s Exercise Group


“When you have a chronic illness, your instinct is to isolate and make your world as small as possible…” — Michael J. Fox


A Parkinson’s diagnosis doesn’t mean you should stop your physical activities. Quite to the contrary, remaining active is one of the most important things you can do to maintain your mental and physical well-being. Exercise won’t stop the progression of Parkinson’s, but it’s critical for preserving your quality of life.


Did you know that St. Luke’s offers a class designed for Parkinson’s patients and those suffering from other movement disorders?


Karol Spraggs, OTD, OTR/L, CHT, is a Doctor of Occupational Therapy at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Center. She is certified to lead the Parkinson’s Exercise class that meets every month on the second and fourth Wednesday from 12:15 pm to 1 pm. Karol’s goal for the class is to promote stretching exercises to keep muscles limber. Because PD sufferers can feel self-conscious about their condition, she’s been careful to create a safe and comfortable place for her patients to meet. 


The classes are based on LSVT Big (lsvtglobal.com/LSVTBig ) and PWR Moves (pwr4life.org/moves/). The class promotes big stretching that improves movement for most activities. For example, the exercises improve self-care skills like buttoning a shirt, getting up from a chair, and maintaining balance while walking. And the unplanned benefit of the group is it’s become a place where those suffering from PD have come to support each other. They’ve become friends and now look forward to the classes each month.


The class is a community resource that meets at St. Luke’s Rehab Gym. There’s no cost for the activity, no required sign-up, and no referral is needed to join the program. Karol’s interest in Parkinson’s patients grew out of work at Emory early on in her career. She loves getting to know her patients and meeting the personalities, humor, and gratefulness that lies behind their faces.

To learn more about the exercise class and other Parkinson’s support services at St. Luke’s, call Karol at (828) 894-8419, or email her at Karol.Young@slhnc.org.


Additional resources include https://www.parkinson.org, and the Foothills Parkinson’s Support Group led by Dot and Richard Kennedy at (864) 404-8000.


If you have a healthcare topic of interest or a question, send me a note at Michelle.Fortune@slhnc.org. Also, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or visit StLukesNC.org to learn about top-rated St. Luke’s Hospital and our new world-class services.