Robin Williams death: What is Parkinson's disease?

The actor had recently been diagnosed with the neurological condition before he took his life

Natasha Culzac
Monday 18 August 2014 08:33 BST
Robin Williams was in the early stages on Parkinson's, his wife has said
Robin Williams was in the early stages on Parkinson's, his wife has said (AP)

Robin Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease when he died earlier this week in an apparent suicide, his wife has said.

He hadn’t been ready to “share publicly” his battle with the condition, Susan Schneider said, while he, like many of the thousands of Britons diagnosed with the progressive neurological condition, struggled to come to terms with it.

Every hour, someone in the UK is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a debilitating disorder that worsens over time and for which there is no cure.

What is Parkinson’s?

It is a neurodegenerative movement disorder, which develops as nerve cells in the brain die. These nerve cells are needed to regulate movement and they produce the feel-good chemical and neurotransmitter dopamine.

Without dopamine, a person’s motor functions can become severely restricted with shaking, muscle stiffness and slowness of movement all characteristics of Parkinson’s.

It means that simple activities such as eating or getting dressed become increasingly difficult.

The condition is also idiopathic, meaning that we do not know why the nerve cells die.

What are the symptoms?

Though the primary symptoms of Parkinson’s disease relate to movement, there are other non-motor functions that are also affected, including dizziness, pain, fatigue and bladder issues, in addition to a number of mental health problems like depression, anxiety and hallucinations.

According to charity Parkinson’s UK, not everyone will experience all of these symptoms and the order in which they appear and their severity also differs from person to person.

A tremor, or the involuntary shaking of a body part, is sometimes the first sign of Parkinson’s and it can spread from a finger in one hand into the arm or even into the foot on the same side of the body.

Rigidity can cause cramps and the stiffness of muscles, often affecting the neck, shoulder and leg, while postural instability may also make it difficult for a person with Parkinson’s to stand upright.

Slow movement, or bradykinesia, can limit facial expressions, make the task of walking extremely difficult, and can make repetitive movements such as brushing teeth also hard.

Parkinson’s itself does not cause people to die, but symptoms do deteriorate over time.

How many people are affected?

Roughly 127,000 people in the UK have Parkinson’s – one in every 500. Most of the people who are diagnosed are over 50, however one in 20 is under the age of 40, according to the NHS.

Men are also more likely to develop the condition than women.

What treatments are available?

Though there is no known cure for the condition, treatments to help control the symptoms of Parkinson’s include medications and physical therapies, such as exercise.

One of the main drugs is Levodopa, which enters the brain where it is converted into dopamine by the body to replace the diminishing supply.

The drug is effective at improving mobility and motor function in the short-term, but can be associated with various complications such as abnormal involuntary movements in the long-term, the European Parkinson’s Disease Association says.

Occupational and speech therapies are also utilised to help those with Parkinson’s manage day-to-day activities, as well as palliative care, which helps to address physical issues such as appetite as well as a person’s social and psychological needs.

Neurosurgery is sometimes used to treat those who’ve had Parkinson’s for a long time and whose condition is not responsive to medication.

Research into a cure is ongoing, as well as into improved medications that help to replace the reduced dopamine levels.

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