Two types of procedures are used to treat Parkinson's: ablative procedures and deep brain stimulation (DBS). Ablative procedures like thalamotomy and pallidotomy use cold or heat to destroy a small area of brain tissue that is abnormally overactive in people with Parkinson's disease. Surgery on one side of the brain will affect the other side of the body.
In people with Parkinson's, the loss of dopamine-producing cells leads to abnormal activity in certain parts of the brain. Deep brain stimulation implants a thin electrode in the brain and attaches it to a battery-operated device called a neurostimulator (or pulse generator), which acts much like a heart pacemaker, sending impulses to correct the abnormal brain activity. DBS on one side of the brain affects symptoms on the opposite side of the body. The procedure doesn't affect dopamine production, so patients who have it will still need to take their medication, although they may not need to take as much.
In addition to medication and surgery, patients can get physical therapy to improve balance and movement, and speech therapy to help with speaking and swallowing. Parkinson's patients may also benefit from these alternative therapies and lifestyle changes:
- Massage, which reduces muscle tension and promotes relaxation
- Tai chi, which improves flexibility, strength and balance
- Yoga, which improves flexibility and balance
- Eating healthy (especially fruits, vegetables and fiber), which relieves the constipation that can be a symptom of Parkinson's
Several new therapies are under investigation for Parkinson's disease, and might lead to improved treatments in the future:
People with Parkinson's don't make enough coenzyme Q10, a substance that is essential for energy production in the cells. One study found that 1,200 milligrams a day of coenzyme Q10 reduced disability and slowed disease progression in Parkinson's patients [source: National Parkinson Foundation].
Many Parkinson's patients take vitamin E. Although research so far has not shown that vitamin E slows disease progression, this antioxidant fights cell damage caused by highly reactive molecules called free radicals.
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have been investigating whether creatine, an amino acid found in muscles, might improve patients' energy and muscle strength, and slow the progression of Parkinson's disease.
In early studies, the investigational drug SLV308 significantly improved tremors and slow movement in Parkinson's patients. Research, though preliminary, indicates that it might be useful in the early stages of the disease.
Stem cells, which can develop into any type of tissue in the body, are showing promise for many diseases, including Parkinson's. Researchers have already used stem cells to treat rats with symptoms of Parkinson's [sources: BBC News, MIT News]. The challenge is to coax the stem cells into becoming the damaged nerve cells, which will take more time and research.