Not all tremors represent Parkinson’s disease

Patients frequently come to see me for evaluation of their tremor.  Invariably the history is that the tremor was first brought to their attention by a close friend or a family member. The patient is worried that he/she has Parkinson’s disease and hence seek a neurologist’ s attention. Rarely are they bothered by the tremor per-se. By that I mean the tremor is usually not disabling and does not impair their quality of life at least initially. So do all tremors represent Parkinson’s disease? Are there any benign tremors? Which tremors warrant medical attention? These are some of the issues I plan to dwell on in this blog post. I hope some of my readers shall find the information useful.

So what exactly is a tremor. Well neurologically a tremor is characterized by rhythmic oscillatory and involuntary movement across a joint. I used the work involuntary because tremors at times can be voluntary. Voluntary tremor is usually psychogenic (meaning it has a psychological basis to it). We shall not discuss psychogenic/voluntary tremors in this post though. Suffice to say that a doctor shall be able to identify psychogenic tremor based on the history and examination findings alone.

So what do I look for when a patient with tremor comes to me seeking an explanation. Well the age of the patient is the first clue to the etiology of the tremor. Idiopathic Parkinson’s disease usually starts off in the sixth to seventh decade of life. Familial Parkinson’s disease can start at a younger age but usually the tremor is not so prominent nor is it the initial manifestation. There can be many causes of tremor in the “young”.  Various medical conditions some more common such as hyperthyroidism, hepatic and renal diseases and some more exotic such as Wilson’s disease (due to a problem with copper metabolism in the body)come to mind.  At times the answer is more innocuous and the tremor is either due to stress or excessive intake of coffee and other caffeine containing drinks. In that case all that is needed is reassurance. One other disease that needs to be kept in mind is multiple sclerosis though usually more findings are documented in exam (meaning that the tremor is not see in isolation). One should never forget to ask patients about the use of prescription, over the counter and illicit drugs. Many drugs such as sodium valproate (commonly used to treat seizures and at times bipolar disorder), bronchodilators (drugs used to treat asthma, reactive airway disease and chronic obstructive airway disease) cause a coarse postural and kinetic tremor as a side-effect. Once the drug is stopped the tremor abates.

Another common entity frequently confused with Parkinson’s disease is what is called essential tremor or also sometimes referred to as benign essential tremor. Patients who have essential tremor are usually in the same age group as patients with idiopathic Parkinson’s disease and hence the confusion and concern arises. Essential tremor has the following characteristics: it is usually a postural tremor (meaning that the tremor is most prominent when the hands are kept out and maintained at a posture such as having them stretched out in front of you. Remember the classical tremor of Parkinson’s disease is a resting tremor. Meaning the tremor is most prominent when the hands are at rest like for example resting on the patient’s lap and the patient’s attention is diverted). Essential tremor is a faster and finer tremor as compared to the tremor of Parkinson’s disease which is a slower (2-5 Hz) and of higher amplitude. A point to note here is that tremors are frequently classified based on their frequency, amplitude and position (rest Vs postural Vs kinetic).  Patients who have essential tremor frequently in addition to the hand tremor also may have a head tremor (the head shakes either from side to side [no-no tremor] or up and down [yes-yes tremor]). They may also have a tremor in their speech (voice tremor). On further questioning some of them may admit to having the tremor run in their family (meaning their father and grandfather also had a similar tremor). They may have also noted that when they drink alcohol the tremor becomes less prominent.  Infact some patients start drinking excessively for this very reason! Essential tremor usually progresses very very slowly (if at all) and may never become problematic and disabling in the patient’s lifetime.  Hence it does not need to be treated unless it is socially disabling (“Doctor Sethi I cannot drink a glass of wine without spilling it over my dress!” “Dr Sethi  I am so embrassed when my hands shake in a business meeting!”). Essential tremor is not accompanied by the other signs and symptoms which accompany Parkinson’s disease such as gait problems, freezing, stiffness, rigidity and mask like facies.

So not all tremors represent Parkinson’s disease. A quick visit to your “local” neurologist shall give you an answer to what kind of tremor you have.

Early signs of Parkinson’s disease: making the diagnosis

Early signs of  Parkinson’s  disease: making the diagnosis

Nitin K Sethi, MD

Assistant Professor of Neurology

New York-Presbyterian Hospital

Weill Cornell Medical Center

New York, NY 10065

 

Well it is the start of a new year and a new decade. Welcome twenty ten. I wish all the readers of my blog a very happy new year. Recently I saw a patient in my office and he shall be the subject of my post. He came to see because of his tremor. Actually I should not say he came to see me, the patient infact felt there was nothing wrong with him.

Dr. Sethi, I have noticed a tremor in my right hand for the past 3 months. It does not bother me. I feel fine. It is my wife who wants me to come and get this checked out” he said.

As I examined him I realised his ” hand shakes” problem was something more sinister as I found tell tale signs suggestive of Parkinson’s disease. That is what I shall discuss here, how does one go about making the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease ? What are the points in the history and examination that make me as a doctor consider this diagnosis?

Parkinson’s disease may start off very innocuously. All my patient had noticed was that for the past3 months he had a tremor in his right hand. The tremor did not bother him and did not interfere with any activity of daily living such as writing, getting dressed, eating and so forth.  He in fact would not have sought a neurological consultation if his wife had not insisted.  That said and done, there are certain characteristics of the tremor which can aid in the diagnosis. The classical tremor described with Parkinson’s disease is what is called a resting tremor. Now pray what does that mean? Simple the tremor is most prominent when the hands are rest. Let me explain with the aid of an example. While I was talking to my patient and eliciting his medical history, my visual attention was focussed at his hands which were at rest on his lap. I noticed his right hand to have a tremor, the tremor became more prominent when he was distracted. If I asked him to look at his right hand, he could stop the tremor for a few seconds but then the tremor came back. He did not have  a tremor in his left hand or in his legs. When the arms were extended (held up in front of him), the tremor  abated.

So point number 1:  Sporadic Parkinson’s disease usually starts of in the sixth to seventh decade of life. The initial presentation may be quite subtle with only a mild tremor. The tremor initially is asymmetrical (that is it may only be in one hand) and classically it is a resting tremor (most prominent when the hands are completely at rest). The tremor becomes less prominent when the hands are doing something (in motion) and completely abates when the patient falls asleep. Remember the tremor at least initially during the disease course may not be bothersome for the patient and may not impair his quality of life. Hence the patient may not seek attention and the diagnosis may be delayed.

There are some other early signs of Parkinson’s disease. On close inspection I was able to document them in my patient too. When he spoke to me, his face lacked the usual emotions. What do I mean by that. Well when we speak our face show a variety of emotions, we frown, we roll our eyes, sometimes our eyes smile and so forth. A Parkinson’s disease patient has what is called a “mask-like” face-there is a paucity of normal facial expressions.

So point number 2.  Mask like face

Parkinson’s disease patients have a characteristic gait. For want of better words, they walk stiffly. The classical gait is described as bent forward, walking with short quick steps (as if they are going to topple over) and the arms are held by the side (they do not have the usual arm swing).

So point number 3. Gait (They walk funny!!!)

So if you or any of your loved ones show these signs, make sure you get a neurological opinion. Your doctor shall be able to elicit further points in the history and examination which shall help secure the diagnosis of sporadic Parkinson’s disease. Remember the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease remains a clinical diagnosis (one made by a doctor after history and examination). There are no confirmatory tests (at least none that are used in the office setting).

 

 

 

The tremor of Parkinson’s disease

                                                     The tremor of Parkinson’s disease

Nitin. K. Sethi, MD

Assistant Professor of Neurology

New York-Presbyterian

Weill Cornell Medical Center

New York, NY 10065

Since many of the readers of my blog and website (http://braindiseases.info) have written in asking about tremor, I thought in this post I shall describe the tremor seen in Parkinson’s disease in detail. The classical tremor described in Parkinson’s disease is a resting tremor which has a frequency of about 2-5 Hz. Let me explain in more simple terms what I mean by that.

The tremor in Parkinson’s disease is present at rest and not when the hands/ limbs are in motion (when the patient’s hands are placed on a table and are completely at rest, the tremor comes out. Now if you ask the patient to hold the hands in front of themselves or to perform some action like picking up a glass of water and bring it to their lips, the tremor becomes less prominent and may not be noticable. Hence it is called a RESTING TREMOR). Another way to observe the resting tremor is to see the patient walk. When we walk, our arms are held by the side of the body and are completely at rest, if a person has a resting tremor it is clearly visible.

The tremor in Parkinson’s disease has a frequency of about 2-5Hz ( meaning that the tremor is not very fast). It also has a large amplitude (meaning that it is not fine rather it is a gross tremor and can be well appreciated by the naked eye from a distance).

The tremor of Parkinson’s disease disappears/ stops when the patient falls asleep (most of the tremors abate on sleeping and hence this quality does not aid in differentiating the tremor of Parkinson’s disease from other tremors).

The classical tremor of Parkinson’s disease is a pill-rolling tremor (meaning the tremor consists of flexion and extension of the fingers in connection with adduction and abduction of the thumb. Imagine yourself rolling a pill, that is how the tremor looks like!!!)

Most importantly the tremor in Parkinson’s disease is accompanied by other signs of Parkinson’s disease such as rigidity (the tone of the muscles of the limbs is increased), bradykinesia (slowness in the execution of movement) and a disturbance of gait and posture (the gait is slow, stooped forward-we call this a festinating gait and their posture is off so patients are more prone to falls). That said and done signs of Parkinson’s disease may appear at different times and not all at once. At times the first/ earliest manifestation of Parkinson’s disease is the presence of an asymmetrical resting tremor (meaning the tremor usually appears asymmetrically/ only in one hand).

 

Falls in neurodegenerative conditions: what can be done?

               Nitin K Sethi, MD

Assistant Professor of Neurology

New York-Presbyterian Hospital

Weill Cornell Medical Center

New York, NY 10065

FALLS ARE COMMON IN THE ELDERLY!!!

Falls are common in neurodegenerative conditions so that is what I shall discuss in this post. Patients with diseases like Alzheimer’s dementia, fronto-temporal dementia (Pick’s disease), multi-infarct dementia (vascular dementia), Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and some post stroke patients are all prone to falls either early or sometime in their disease course.

FALLS CAUSE MORBIDITY AND MORTALITY!!!

Falls are an important cause of morbidity and mortality in this vulnerable population. Imagine a-85-year old man with Alzheimer’s dementia. Even though he has cognitive deficits (decreased memory and problems with other cognitive skills like calculation, abstract thinking and language) he is still relatively mobile. Every day he takes a 30 min walk in his immediate neighbourhood. One day while walking, he trips over and falls when his foot gets caught in a crack in the side-walk. He is unable to get up by himself . Help only reaches him after an hour when his family comes looking for him. He is rushed to the nearest hospital where an X-ray reveals fracture of the hip and the pelvis. Surgical management is indicated for fracture stabilization.  He is admitted to the hospital and the hospital course gets complicated by development of pressure sores (bed sores), deep venous thrombosis (blood clots in the veins of the legs) and pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung vasculature).  All these are directly related to his forced immobilization due to hip and pelvic fractures. He gets progressively more disoriented during his prolonged hospital stay though survives and makes a slow recovery and is discharged to a sub-acute facility.

FALLS HURT AND CAUSE INJURIES!!!

Falls may lead to various injuries:

1) Fractures of the hips, long bones: tibia, fibula, femur, neck of femur, radius, ulna

2) Neurotrauma: head injuries: subdural and epidural hematomas, sub arachnoid hemorrhage, intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding into the brain)

3) Craniofacial injuries: injuries to the face, eyes, the orbit

4) Fractures of the ribs

5) Back injuries

THE STATISTICS ARE SCARY!!!!

The incidence of hip fracture increases as the population ages. One in five persons dies in the first year after sustaining a hip fracture, and of those who survive past one year many have significant functional limitation. Of those who survive one year after hip fracture, only 40 percent can perform all routine activities of daily living and only 54 percent can walk without an aid.

WHY DO THE ELDERLY FALL???

Why are falls common in the elderly and more so in the elderly population with a neurodegenerative condition? The causes are many:

1) Poor eye-sight (as we age cataracts and other retinal degenerative conditions become common contributing to poor eye-sight). They have poor depth perception and visual contrast sensitivity.

2) decreased acuity of hearing

3) concomitant neuropathy (many of the elderly population may have a condition like diabetes giving rise to a concomitant peripheral neuropathy. Persons with a sensory motor polyneuropathy are not able to sense the ground and thus their righting reflex is off). RIGHTING REFLEX: various reflexes that tend to bring the body into normal position in space and resist forces acting to displace it out of normal position.

4) Neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s dementia impair these postural reflexes/ righting reflexes making patients even more prone to falls and resultant injuries.

5) The elderly are on multiple medications like  benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, sedatives and  antihypertensives which may contribute to the falls. 

6) Risk of osteoporosis and osteopenia increases as we age: when the elderly fall they are more likely to hurt themselves or fracture their bones.

7) Other concomitant medical conditions like diabetes, kidney problems, thyroid problems, blood pressure problems and cardiac problems may contribute to the falls.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

The big question is how to prevent falls in the elderly. A number of interventions may help.

1) Treat the neurodegenerative/ underlying condition contributing to the falls. Gait and postural reflexes of patients with Parkinson’s disease improve when they are treated with medications like Levodopa-carbidopa and dopamine agonist. The response though varies, their tremor may improve though their gait may still remain off.

Good control of blood sugar in a diabetic patient helps and may halt the progression of the neuropathy.

Alzheimer’s disease patients also gain some benefit in their gait and mobility when they are treated with medications like Aricept.

2) Correct visual/ eye problems: timely cataract surgery, corrective lenses and glasses all help in improving stability and confidence of the elderly patient.

3) Hearing aids may be of help in those who have hearing loss.

4) Restriction of outdoor activities may be advisable in a patient who is at high risk of falls. If that is not acceptable, these activities should be carried out under direct supervision. Keep a walking partner etc.

5) Correct mechanical/ musculoskeletal gait problems such as ingrown toe nail, back and hip pain, foot drop etc.

6) Regular exercise is helpful. By keeping muscles supple and maintaining their tone it ensures that righting reflexes are not lost.

7) Physical therapy may be immensely helpful in some patients (laying emphasis on gait retraining).

8) Use of assist devices like canes (single point, four point), walker is helpful.

9) Fall proof the home and immediate patient surroundings: remove anything which may cause injury if the patient falls-this includes sharp objects, tables with sharp edges, loose carpets.

have fall prevention devices at the top of stairs.

have a bed whose sides can be put at night (just like in the hospital).

have an alarm or some other call device set-up at home so that help can be summoned.

Last but not least” MOST FALLS OCCUR TO AND FROM THE BED TO THE BATHROOM AT NIGHT, SO LEAVE THE BATHROOM LIGHT ON AT NIGHT!!!”

 

Parkinson’s disease: when to treat and how?

Recently I was asked by someone when should we treat a patient with Parkinson’s disease, early on in the disease course or later when the clinical symptoms are more florid? As you know Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative condition characterized by tremor (resting tremor of the limbs, see my post on tremors http://braindiseases.info), rigidity (stiffness), bradykinesia (patients have less spontaneous movements) and a characteristic disturbance of gait and posture (patients walk stooped forward and their balance is off, making them more prone to falls).

As you can well imagine all these symptoms do not start off all at once. Infact the onset of Parkinson’s disease is quite insidious and generally asymmetrical. In its earliest stages, all the patient may have is a unilateral (one hand) tremor. Later as time goes by and the disease progresses the symptoms become more florid and the bardykinesia and disturbance of gait and posture appear.

So that brings us to the question of my post, just when do we start treating these patients? Should we treat them early or should we treat them in the later stages?

There is no good answer to this question. One concern which has been raised is that if you treat patients with Parkinson’s disease with levodopa/ syndopa (the combination is called Sinemet in The United States), early on in the disease course, the drug itself may hasten the progression of the disease (the thinking behind this is the concern that levodopa may increase the breakdown of dopamine secreting cells in the basal ganglia).

On the other hand, there is some evidence to suggest that early treatment is better because it prevents the compensatory change in hardwiring which occur in the brain in the face of decreasing dopamine (some of the neurons such as that of the subthalamic nucleus become overactive in the face of decreasing dopamine secretion and this later on leads to more problems such as the on-off phenomena).

So what is the answer? I think a patient should be treated when he devlops symptoms that start bothering him or interfere with his functioning and activities of daily living. If that occurs early in the disease course, so be it, he warrants treatment. Nowdays apart from levodopa/syndopa (Sinemet) there are many other drugs which can be used to treat the disease especially in the early phases. These drugs ( dopamine agonists like Requip (Ropinirole) and Mirapex (Pramipexole) and selegine) are less stronger than levodopa/syndopa combination but are thought to have less “neurotoxicity” and hence are preferred to be used in the early stages of the disease.

Your doctor shall help you navigate these questions. Have a good weekend everyone. It is Saturday morning here in NYC as I pen this, I think I shall go for a run.

Personal Regards,

Nitin Sethi, MD

Tremor: what is essential about it?

So let us discuss the diseases which can present with tremors.

1) Drug induced tremors: certain drugs can induce a tremor like I stated ealier. Drugs used to treat asthma (inhalers) and anti-epileptic drugs like valproic acid may induce a tremor in the hands.

2) Benign essential tremor: this as the name suggests is a benign tremor. Patients who have benign essential tremor usually have a postural tremor in their hands but may also have a head and speech tremor. They do not have any underlying neurodegenerative disorder and usually the tremor is not disabling and progressive. As the tremor is not disabling it may not need to be treated unless it causes social embrassement to the patient. Patients who have classical essential tremor notice that their tremor becomes less prominent if they consume alcohol (tremor is alcohol responsive).

3) Cerebellar tremor: patients who have cerebellar involvement (example if you have cerebellar tumor or diseases that involve the cerebellum such as multiple sclerosis) may also have a prominent kinetic (intentional) tremor.

4) Parkinson’s disease: patients who have Parkinson’s disease have a prominent resting tremor. This tremor is most prominent when their hands are at rest and becomes less prominent when they start to use their hands.

Treatment of tremors: like I mentioned earlier, not all tremors need to be treated. We usually treat tremors when they become disabling or socially embrassing to the patient. There are different classes of drugs that are effective for tremor of Parkinson’s disease, cerebellar tremor and essential tremor. Your doctor shall help in deciding what kind of medication may work the best for you. Sometimes if the tremor is particularly disabling and unresponsive to medication, it may respond to neurostimulation (deep brain stimulation). I shall discuss this in a separate post.

Dr. Sethi

Tremor: its essentials and management

In this post I shall talk a little bit about tremors. What exactly is a tremor you may ask. The way we define tremor in neurology is a rhythmic oscillatory movement across a joint. One may have a hand tremor (your hands shake), leg tremors, head tremor and even speech and tongue tremors. One way to classify tremors is to divide them into physiological and non-physiological tremor.

Physiological tremor is present in each and every one of us. If you hold your hands straight out and balance a sheet of paper on it, you can see the paper shaking a little. This is due to the physiological tremor in our hands. We all have it and the thinking behind it is that it is due to cardioballistic motion. Now suppose you go and have a large (I think they call it venti size) Starbucks coffee and repeat the above test again. You shall find that your tremor is now more prominent, this enhancement of the physiological tremor by coffee and some drugs like aminophylline is what is called enhanced physiological tremor. Physiological and enhanced physiological tremors do not need to be treated as they do not disturb the patient in any way. You may ask the patient to cut down on his coffee though.

Non-physiological tremor: as the name suggests these tremors are pathological. One way to classify pathological tremors is on the basis of how they present. So one may have a tremor which is most prominent when the hands are completely at rest and is not present once the hands come into motion (or start doing some activity). This is called a resting tremor (tremor at rest) and is classically seen in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Other tremors are prominent only when the hand is engaged in some action and hence those tremors are called action tremor.

When a patient comes to us for the evaluation of a tremor what we look for is whether the tremor is isolated (meaning there are no other manifestations apart from the tremor) or whether the tremor is a part of a larger neurological syndrome. We want to rule out neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s disease which may present with tremor. Secondly we want to know whether the tremor shall remain static or whether it is going to worsen as time goes by. Then we try to classify the type of tremor and try to identify its etiology. Is it drug induced? What are its exacerrbating factors and what factors make the tremor become less prominent? Does the tremor become less prominent after consuming alcohol? Does the tremor run in the family (meaning is there a family history of tremors)? What does the tremor involve: just the limbs or also the head and speech?

In my next post I shall talk about the management of tremors.

Dr. Sethi