Finding out you have Parkinson’s disease, a progressive brain disorder characterized by tremors and changes in speech and gait, is a hard pill to swallow.
There’s a lot to take in, and it can be incredibly overwhelming not only for the person with the diagnosis, but for their family. But with more research into the disease now than ever before, there are a number of smart strategies you can take to help slow down the disease’s progression, allowing you to live life to your full potential.
1. Connect With a Neurologist
Step number one: Ask your primary care doctor to refer you to a neurologist, preferably one who is a movement disorders specialist. Patients who work with neurologists tend to have better results than those who don’t, says Melita Petrossian, Director of the Pacific Movement Disorders Center in Santa Monica.
But don’t just take her word for it—this study published in the journal Neurology shows that patients treated by neurologists may live longer and are less likely to be placed in a nursing home or to break a hip. Even if you can only get to a specialist once a year, it can still can help, says Petrossian. Another option for those who live far from major medical centers: video conferencing.
2. Find Meds That Work for You
Although there’s no cure for Parkinson’s yet, medications can often dramatically help control symptoms. Do be aware that PD drugs can produce significant side effects like involuntary movements. Additionally, you must take meds exactly as directed to avoid side effects such as gait freezing, unpredictable incidences of being unable to move or keep moving.
Another caution: keep your protein and fat intake in check, as too much of either can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb Parkinson’s medication. If medication doesn’t adequately control your symptoms, deep brain stimulation, which involves the implantation of electrodes in the brain, is another–albeit riskier—option.
3. Participate in Research
Taking part in clinical trials — particularly those seeking treatments to slow or stop disease progression – is a direct way to contribute to finding a cure for PD. “I support patients enrolling in clinical trials because there is a tremendous amount of work left to understand Parkinson’s disease and how to prevent it,” says Dr. Karl Dhana,” Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs at MorseLife Health System in Florida. “We need to continue to develop new and more effective treatments for Parkinson’s which will hopefully lead to a cure.”
4. Get Moving and Keep Moving!
Exercise is another key way to manage Parkinson’s. “All the research shows that the earlier you get on a very Parkinson’s-specific exercise routine, the better it goes for your long-term quality of life,” says physical therapist Brian Keenoy, who treats PD patients at the Generation Care rehab facility in Michigan.
Several exercise programs have been specially designed for people living with Parkinson’s, including Rock Steady Boxing and Dance for PD. Keenoy says that dancing is a good choice for people with the disease, as it involves conscious and purposeful movement that increases the brain-body connection.
Both dancing and Tai chi, another exercise that involves conscious movement, can also improve your balance and reduce your risk of falling. “When you have Parkinson’s, you can’t correct yourself when you lose your balance because the disease decreases how quickly you can move to steady yourself,” says Dhana. In addition, he notes that Parkinson’s and PD medications cause blood pressure to drop in patients when they stand up, sometimes leading to light-headedness and dizziness, which also increases the risk of falling.
5. Manage Your Mood
As with many diseases, managing your mood is a fundamental part of the rehabilitative process. Keenoy, who encourages his patients to do one thing every day that brings them joy, notes that patients who feel depressed may abandon their exercise routine (the loss of dopamine-producing cells in people with Parkinson’s also affects motivation.) In addition, depression can also exacerbate the symptoms of Parkinson’s. As Dhana points out, “if someone is anxious and nervous, it can make the tremors worse.”
Petrossian believes that the emotional response to Parkinson’s can sometimes be more devastating than the physical symptoms. “The bigger issue I see is that a lot of people with Parkinson’s have anxiety and depression, which goes beyond just stress, and I think those need to be addressed, sometimes with cognitive behavioral therapy and sometimes with medication,” she says.
6. Seek Out Support
“Part of the problem for someone just diagnosed with Parkinson’s is a sense of isolation and bewilderment, a sense of identity loss,” Petrossian says. One way to counter the isolation and to adjust to living with Parkinson’s is through peer support. (You can find local support groups–including the PRESS Program for recently diagnosed PD patients– on the American Parkinson’s Disease Association website.)
“Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological disorder, and if you take that on yourself…it can be a little daunting,” says Keenoy, who encourages his patients to build strong social networks. “You’re not the first person diagnosed with Parkinson’s where you live, and so you don’t have to figure it all out on your own,” he says.
7. Reframe Your Experience
In addition to getting support, thinking positively can help you come to terms with your diagnosis. One of Petrossian’s patients has taken to viewing Parkinson’s as a friend (he calls him “Mr. P”), while others repeat mantras like, “I have Parkinson’s, but Parkinson’s doesn’t have me.”
Petrossian acknowledges that this approach may feel a little cliched or trite, “but having a mantra that recognizes your struggle without diminishing who you are and without overemphasizing the role Parkinson’s plays in your life can help you cope and become more resilient.”
In contrast, one of her patients told her that having Parkinson’s means he will “never hit a ball out of the park,” no matter how hard he tries. At the time, Petrossian, who was “blown away” by his “devastating way of thinking about life,” didn’t know how to respond. “How do you get up every day and exercise and everyday try to be positive when you are constantly feeling like you are in a losing battle,” she says.
Later, another patient gave her the answer: If you live with Parkinson’s, “you have to recognize that you have to play a different game, you have to change the rules of the game,” Petrossian says. In other words, she says, “you have to re-imagine your life.”
For his part, Keenoy is adamant that people living with Parkinson’s can live a full life. “I’ve seen individuals come in pretty bummed out because they’ve just got a really big diagnosis, but after you give them tools, they realize they can adapt things so that they really enjoy their life,” he says. “I believe one-thousand per cent that people with Parkinson’s can live a long fruitful, joyful, high-quality life.”