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Toe-to-toe with Parkinson’s disease

Early detection, treatment and exercise enhance patients’ lives

When Julia Gonzalez first noticed the tremor in her hands, she was perplexed, but thought taking some vitamins would solve the problem.

But when it persisted, doctors ran some tests and came back with disturbing news: Gonzalez had Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that impairs various mind and body functions, including motor skills and cognitive processes.

This was shocking and raised many questions in her mind about a condition she knew little about.

“It was very sad. I didn’t know too much about Parkinson’s. My question was, ‘Why?’” says Gonzalez, a native of Peru who now lives in Scottsdale.

That was two years ago. Since then, Gonzalez has relied on medication to manage her symptoms and participates in classes and workshops at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, part of Barrow Neurological Institute.

Parkinson’s, Botox and the brain

The world-renowned center specializes in treating Parkinson’s using a variety of traditional and nontraditional methods, including a substance that is more commonly associated with the beauty industry rather than medicine.

Botulinum toxin, commonly known as Botox, is one of the unexpected drugs being used to treat the physical symptoms of Parkinson’s. The most powerful nerve toxin known to man, Botox is purified, diluted and then injected straight into the muscle, relieving spasms and pain.

Botox has been used to treat Parkinson’s and other movement disorders for the last 20 years and is frequently used at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center. Approximately 30 percent of annual patient visits at the center are for Botox injections. Injection times can take up to an hour and can provide relief for up to three months.

Botox relieves a number of the symptoms that characterize the disease, says Dr. Guillermo Moguel, a movement disorder neurologist at the center.

“Botox can be used to treat motor and non-motor symptoms. It can treat muscle tightness, eye closure, drooling and abnormal posture,” he says. “There have been significant advancements in how we treat it.”

Another method used to relieve the effects of Parkinson’s involves deep brain stimulation. Electrodes are implanted in the brain and powered by a battery pack, Moguel explains. It has shown to be very effective in treating tremors, rigidity and slowness of movement.

Although it is invasive and sounds a bit like science fiction, patients who opt for this treatment are reaping the benefits.

“By stimulating parts of the brain you can improve the symptoms,” says Moguel, “because you are inhibiting certain areas that are overactive. It provides a real advantage over medications. It has improved patients’ quality of life.”

However, the most common and simple treatment remains oral medication, the method that Gonzalez has used for the last two years since being diagnosed. Although the tremors come and go, and her medications need to be adjusted periodically, Gonzalez is encouraged to see other Parkinson’s patients make progress and increase their mobility with ongoing treatment and exercise.

La enfermedad y Latinos

While she is fluent in English, Gonzalez takes advantage of the center’s Spanish language courses and workshops aimed at Latino Parkinson’s patients. She says she has gained education about her disease and support from others who share her condition. Gonzalez better understands Parkinson’s and has learned exercises to help improve her movements.

“It is very helpful if someone is speaking your language. They helped me to feel more comfortable. I’m more happy because I know they are helping me. I feel much better because, before, I did not know what to do,” Gonzalez says. “I know that I am sick. Now I have to live.”

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This Article appears on the January 2011 issue of LPM under Health

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