A diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease can feel like devastating news for you or a loved one. But the disease is very different from other neurodegenerative illnesses, assures Todd M. Herrington, MD, PhD. Dr. Herrington is a Mass General Brigham neurologist and movement disorders specialist. With the right treatment from an expert care team, you can successfully manage Parkinson’s symptoms for many years to come.
Neurologists treat a range of brain, spinal cord, nerve, and muscle conditions, including Parkinson’s disease. Some neurologists, like Dr. Herrington, have advanced training and expertise in movement disorders. Seeing a movement disorders specialist gives you a better chance of receiving an accurate diagnosis and comprehensive treatment.
Dr. Herrington stresses the importance of finding a neurologist who’s responsive to your needs. You want to feel comfortable expressing your concerns, and you should feel like your neurologist listens and helps. “Your movement disorders specialist is often the ‘captain’ of your Parkinson’s care team,” says Dr. Herrington.
Movement disorder specialists typically work within a dedicated movement disorders clinic. For example, Dr. Herrington treats patients at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center.
People often get referred to a movement disorders clinic after their Parkinson’s symptoms worsen. But Dr. Herrington encourages you to find a movement disorders specialist early on.
“There are things you can do that dramatically change the trajectory of your symptoms,” he says. “These include seeing therapists with expertise in Parkinson’s disease and starting a dedicated exercise program.” People with Parkinson’s do better over time if they exercise more. The benefits begin in the short term, but add up even more over the long term.
At a movement disorders center, your doctor can connect you with physical, occupational, or speech therapists. Physical therapists help improve your strength, balance, and movement. Occupational therapists guide you through exercises and strategies that make your daily tasks more doable. Speech therapists focus on exercises to improve the volume and clarity of speech, and to swallow more safely.
A specialized center also tends to have a robust research community. Research ranges from studies to understand the underlying cause of Parkinson’s disease and how it progresses over time, to therapeutic trials designed to develop new drug and device treatments to improve the quality of people’s lives with Parkinson’s.
“Some clinical research trials testing drugs to try and slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease can only enroll people who have just been diagnosed with the disease and not yet started medications,” says Dr. Herrington. “This is another reason to be seen at a movement disorders center early. You may be eligible for some unique clinical trials.”
“There’s a long list of symptoms that Parkinson’s disease can cause. It’s not just the tremor or slowed walking,” emphasizes Dr. Herrington.
Some of the most bothersome symptoms may be nonmotor symptoms, such as:
Anxiety or depression
Blood pressure problems and dizziness
Dementia, paranoia, psychosis, or hallucinations
Trouble swallowing or eating
“Being in a place that can address all the issues that fall under the Parkinson’s umbrella is really important,” highlights Dr. Herrington. As the centerpiece of your Parkinson’s care team, movement disorder specialists can help you manage each of your symptoms. They can also refer you to other specialists when you need additional care.
“We are fortunate to have colleagues in many specialties with expertise in caring for people with Parkinson’s, for example in gastroenterology, urology, sleep medicine, and psychiatry,” Dr. Herrington adds. You want to build a care team individualized to your needs. Over time, your Parkinson’s care team may change or grow as new issues arise.