Parkinson’s disease: How to manage day-to-day symptoms

The number of Canadians over 40 living with Parkinson’s  is estimated to increase to over 163,000 by 2031, the Public Health Agency of Canada reports.
The number of Canadians over 40 living with Parkinson’s is estimated to increase to over 163,000 by 2031, the Public Health Agency of Canada reports. Obencem/Getty Images File

If you’re one of the 99,000 Canadians over the age of 40 living with Parkinson’s disease, then you know the daily struggles that come with managing your symptoms.

And because Parkinson’s is a chronic condition and symptoms can be so varied from one person to the next, Robert TerSteege, an information and referral associate at Parkinson Canada, says it’s important that patients pay attention to their own bodies so they can receive the best level of care and quality of life as possible.

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This requires patients to attend to certain needs in order to achieve those goals to help manage their symptoms like tremors, rigidity, postural instability and non-motor symptoms like difficulty swallowing, nausea and more.

(Note that symptoms can be subjective and not as readily apparent, TerSteege says, so it’s important that patients report any symptoms to their caregiver and physician.)

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Other common issues include constipation, sexual dysfunction, depression and/or anxiety.

“These particular symptoms may not be improved with anti-Parkinson medications, but there can be both medical and non-medical ways of treating them,” TerSteege says. “However, since they are embarrassing for many people to discuss, a doctor may not know it is a [problem]… I tell people that if the doctor doesn’t know something is broke, they can’t fix it.”

As part of Parkinson’s Awareness Month in April, Global spoke with Parkinson Canada to discuss the needs of Parkinson’s patients – what they and their caregivers need to do and the best course of action in order to treat their disease as best as possible.

One of the most important things patients need to be on top of is their diet and nutrition, TerSteege says.

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“Because many people living with Parkinson’s may suffer from constipation, healthy eating (including sufficient amounts and increasing fibre-rich foods) can be an excellent way to manage this symptom without additional medication.”

A good diet, he adds, is also important for overall health and helps to keep bones strong which may prevent breaks later on, should a patient have a fall.

Exercise should also be a part of a patient’s regime. Since it’s a movement disorder, TerSteege says exercise is the best way to combat some of the effects.

“Exercise can help stretch rigid muscles; it can help strengthen core muscles involved in balance and it can have a benefit on non-motor symptoms including constipation, sleep and depression.”

Another important aspect of care for Parkinson’s patient is their emotional well-being.

Stress can temporarily make symptoms more pronounced, TerSteege says.

“A light tremor may become heavier; muscles can be more stiff; a person may become more slow,” he explains. “By managing stress, people can try and minimize any adverse effects.”

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A second reason why managing emotional well-being is crucial is that anxiety and depression are very common non-motor symptoms, TerSteege says.

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“Many people believe that they are just not coping well, and not recognizing that it is a symptom,” he points out. “Like anxiety and depression in the general population, there can be very effective ways of managing these symptoms whether through mindful meditation, talk therapy, medication or a combination of all of these.”

Acting promptly by discussing the issue with your physician, he says, can be key in making sure that the patient is not suffering in silence.

Dental care should be top of mind as well, TerSteege advises.

There can be a number of factors that impact a patient’s dental hygiene, like medication side effects, excessive saliva and poor motor control for good oral health maintenance.

Patients should ensure they go to regular dental checkups, and should think about using an electric toothbrush if they have difficulty brushing their teeth.

And the most important thing patients need to remember is to always take their medication – and to take them on time, TerSteege says.

“Think of your meds like filling up on your car’s gas tank: you don’t want to get on the highway with a tank on empty and caught between service stations,” he says. “By taking your meds properly, there will become a certain predictability to your day.”

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According to the National Populations Health Study of Neurological Conditions by the Public Health Agency of Canada, more than half of those with Parkinson’s have fair or poor general health, and people with the disease have the highest use of prescription medication.

The number of Canadians over the age of 40 living with Parkinson’s is expected to jump to 163,700 by 2031.