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Parkinson's Disease Diagnosis? Now What?

April is national Parkinson's Disease Awareness month. In the spirit of education, I invite you to take a few moments to familiarize yourself with Parkinson's Disease through one of the best resource available online, The Parkinson's Foundation.

According to The Parkinson's Foundation website, Parkinson's Disease is "A neurodegenerative disorder that affects predominately the dopamine-producing (“dopaminergic”) neurons in a specific area of the brain called substantia nigra." While movement related symptoms such as tremors and stiffness can be common, they are usually just the tip of the iceberg. Parkinson's Disease symptoms can also include sleep disorders, cognitive decline, balance issues, bowl and bladder function, fatigue, pain and other symptoms. If you are having any of the symptoms listed above, make an appointment to see a health professional as soon as possible.

The symptoms of PD vary and a diagnosis can be vague and scary for individuals and their families. Although initial diagnosis typically will come from a family doctor, it is recommended to see a neurologist who specializes in movement disorders as a follow up for treatment and care plan. It can take a while to get an appointment and depending on where you live, you may need to travel to see one. In the greater Philadelphia Area, there are some of the best movement disorder specialists available. Once you get your appointment, it's important to continue to advocate for yourself or your loved one through the progression of the disease, as it changes. Symptoms can often be managed through medications and movement therapy.

The cause of Parkinson's Disease is believed to be a combination of genetics and environmental factors, but symptoms vary widely and research is still ongoing. It could be due to better testing, awareness, and diagnosis, the fact that people are living longer, or that the baby boomer generation is reaching their golden years, but the prevalence of PD is currently on the rise. Due to the prevalence (nearly 90,000 diagnosed in the U.S. annually and over 1,000,000 living with PD in the U.S. today) research is key to understanding more about diagnosis and treatment options. More statistics and resources about causes and symptoms are available on the website.

From a personal point of view, a diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease is scary because it means the future is unclear. Even if a person feels great now, with minimal symptoms, the thought of physical and mental decline can weigh heavy. What will the future hold? When will there be a loss of independence? While the future may be unclear due to there being no cure for PD, there are a lot of treatment options available that can diminish symptoms and extend independence. The nature of the disease can be so different for each person, it's important to advocate and continue to advocate for yourself or your loved one as the disease progresses.

Physical, occupational, and speech therapy are a very important part of the treatment plan for PD. As a good advocate for yourself or your loved one, know that therapy will be an ongoing process after diagnosis. I spoke to Dr. Jennifer Brown PT, DPT, GCS, CEO of Dynamic Home Therapy and Neurofit ( to get a better understanding of treatment options for PD in the greater Philadelphia Area. What I didn't know before speaking with her is how important it is to find a therapist that has a full understanding and certification in PD treatment to get the best out of therapy. Though it is understood that exercise and movement is helpful, it's important to also know that not all therapists fully understand the symptoms of the disease or the best ways to treat them.

Rock Steady Boxing for Parkinson's is part of Dr. Brown's Neurofit program at her outpatient clinic in Berwyn, PA, but has branches all across the U.S. More information on Rock Steady can be found on their website Rock Steady is a boxing class for those diagnosed with Parkinson's that has been shown to not just retain but improve strength and mobility in participants. Dr. Brown recommends that attendance at least twice a week is needed to see results and that 150 minutes a week of moderate and specific exercise is recommended for those suffering from PD. Any exercise is better than nothing, but it's important to know what movements are most helpful and how to perform them for the most benefit; hence the recommendation for a health professional to be involved as some movements may do more harm than good.

A Parkinson's Disease diagnosis can be upsetting, but with awareness, advocacy, the proper medication and movement therapy, a full life is possible and more people are living independent and active lives with PD.

If you or a loved one is diagnosed, it's recommended that you educate yourself on the disease, the options for medication and other interventions, and the available resources in your area. Don't just settle for a family doctor's treatment options unless they have a vast knowledge of the disease. It's recommended that you start treatment immediately to retain strength and mobility as well as the best cognitive function possible.

If you or your loved one is diagnosed at a later stage in the progression, all hope is not lost. There are still resources and it's important to know that you are not alone in your search to find the best treatment options. Advocacy is the most important part of this journey because though no cure is available at this time, the medication and therapy options are proven to extend life and independence. Be sure to stay educated and up to date on the latest research about Parkinson's Disease.

Please call the Parkinson's Foundation Hotline (1-800-473-4636) if you need guidance about treatment, support groups or other resources.

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