Healthy Living

Understanding Parkinson’s Disease Through Falling

Understanding Parkinson’s Disease Through Falling

Key Takeaways

  • Researching are mapping how people affected with Parkinson's disease will react to jolts and falls.
  • People with Parkinson's have a high risk of falling and injury.
  • Researchers conduct similar studies on falling and other diseases like diabetes and autism.

Parkinson’s disease is commonly known to be a progressive disorder in the nervous system which affects an individual’s movement. A well-known sign of Parkinson’s disease is a tremor usually noticeable in just one hand. Stiffness or slow movement is also caused by the disease. In the US, there are already almost one million people affected with this disease. Unfortunately, the cause is still unknown, as well as the probable cure. However, there are already treatment options such as medication and surgery to help manage or improve the disease.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease involves the malfunction of nerve cells known as neurons. The neurons in the part of the brain called substantia nigra are greatly affected by this disease. Some dying neurons produce a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine sends messages to the part of the brain, which controls the movement and coordination. When the disease progresses, the amount of dopamine will decrease, making the person unable to move normally.

Common Symptoms

There are two kinds of symptoms in Parkinson’s disease – motor symptoms and non-motor symptoms. Motor Symptoms have to do with movements. One common motor symptom in Parkinson’s disease is tremor. In the early stages, a person’s face with Parkinson’s disease may show less or no expression at all, and the arms may not swing when walking. The speech of an affected person may become slurred too, and because Parkinson’s disease is a chronic and progressive disease, the symptoms may worsen over time. Other symptoms are as follows:

  • Tremor of the hands, arms, legs, and jaw-  These usually occur when  a person affected is awake. It can also happen if the patient is standing or sitting. Fortunately, you can lessen the tremor by exercising regularly. This is because certain movements of the affected body parts make the tremor better. Health professionals also reveal that both physical and emotional stress have the tendency to make the symptom worse. Hence, it is highly suggested to avoid activities that cause stress like lack of sleep and overwork. Lastly, intentional movement is also not recommended. Thus, consult your doctor first for advice on what exercise routine is best for your condition.
  • Bradykinesia or slowness of movement- This happens when a person tries to move after having a rest. A good example of this symptom is when you stand up after sitting on a chair for quite a long time. Turning over your bed from one position to another can also cause Bradykinesia to occur.
  • The stiffness of the limb and trunk- It is also called rigidity of the muscles. In fact, the stiffness of the limb and trunk is actually an early sign that you are affected by the disease. This condition affects different parts of the body, such as the limbs (arms and legs), neck, and even the face. It may cause the muscles to feel itchy or tired.
  • Impaired balance and coordination-  These are also common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. A lot of PD patients suffer from frequent falls courtesy of impaired balance and posture. One telltale sign to detect this symptom is to observe how a person walks. A PD patient who suffers from this particular symptoms has short strides. They usually shuffle their feet closely and have difficulty when turning around. 
  • The weakness of the face and throat muscles is another symptoms. It will be difficult for the person affected with Parkinson’s disease to talk and swallow. Choking, coughing, and drooling may happen too. The person’s speech may become softer and monotonous. A person with the disease may also have a vacant facial expression commonly known as the “Parkinson’s mask.”
  • Freezing is one of the symptoms where the person with Parkinson’s disease will have the sudden or brief inability to move. This often affects the person’s walking.

Non-motor symptoms refer to those symptoms that don’t involve movements. A few examples of non-motor symptoms are constipation and depression. However, these symptoms may vary in each person. Some people may experience these symptoms at the early stage, but some may get it until later or not at all. These symptoms usually begin in age range of 50-60. They slowly develop and often unnoticed by the person affected by the disease and the people around him. Some people may even have these symptoms only on a particular part of their body. A person can get some treatment only for relief of these symptoms, but there is still no permanent cure.

Could Researchers Understand Parkinson’s Better by Studying Falling?

Researchers have been conducting researches to deal with the symptoms of the disease. A group of researchers started to conduct a study where they make people fall down. This research, which occurs at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, is being conducted at the Lab. A mobility exercise was completed as spearheaded by Dr Evan Papa. The study’s main participant was Neva Fittz, who was already 76 years of age at the time of the study. They map how people affected with the disease will react to the falls. To get the data, Fittz has to stand on the treadmill which is quite big. Fittz has also a harness for safety reasons and wears an overall spandex with balls taped on various parts of the body. During the experiment, Fittz showed fear but didn’t let it change her mind. Instead, she visualized that she’s going to catch herself after a fall (if ever).

During the study, 12 cameras in full 360-degree motion were installed in the laboratory. These cameras allow them to pick up the reflective balls and look at the very minute details. The details include the range of motion in joints in the knee, wrist, and hip. In this way, they can see what happen to those joints when someone is in the act of falling.

As Fittz begin to walk, everything went smoothly until she stumbles because of a jolt in the treadmill. Dr. Papa said that they want to know what exactly happens to the person's body when it is recovering from a fall by mapping a tripping or falling experiment. Researchers of the study stated that they use similar gears to investigate on diabetes, autism, as well as severe conditions. For younger patients like children and teenagers on the autism area, the researchers would conduct a study using VR (virtual reality) to understand how patients coordinate their motor ability and the things they see. Furthermore, the data is used to persuade the insurance companies to cover the costs of the prosthetics. 

Comparing Results

According to Papa, Fittz is healthy neurologically. However, she continues to look for patients with Parkinson’s disease. One great example is Fittz’s husband named Jim. Jim denied the disease in the beginning, but it’s generational. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s six years ago. Jim then started with the tremors and jerking, In fact, he confessed that it is quite easy for him to get tripped. Fittz and her husband are glad that such study exists. They feel like through the study, they learn a lot of the programs are learning more about his body every day with the lap of the ropes and harness.

Reports from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC concluded that there are almost 800,000 patients each year after the fall because of the hip or head injury. The average cost of hospitalization is about $30,000. In 2015 alone, the hospitalization costs more than $31 billion already. Moreover, because Parkinson’s disease is a progressive illness, these numbers may rise as the population continues to grow. With all these numbers growing, Dr. Rita Patterson, the director of the Human Movement Performance Lab said that this is the reason why they want to prevent falls with the help of this research. Although they believe that the study is not really a cure for Parkinson’s disease, they still think that these studies can help improve lives.