You can find out more about NPF's National Medical Director, Dr. Michael S. Okun, by also visiting the NPF Center of Excellence, University of Florida Center for Movement Disorders & Neurorestoration.
One of the most common questions that we receive on both on the National Parkinson Foundation Ask the Doctor forum, and on the 1-800-4PD-INFO Helpline is “when should I start medications for my Parkinson’s disease.” This months What’s Hot in PD column will focus on this simple, but critically important question.
The most important factor in initiating medications for an individual patient is whether Parkinson’s symptoms are affecting quality of life, or alternatively whether symptoms are affecting work performance. Bothersome Parkinson’s symptoms commonly include motor issues (tremor, stiffness, slowness, walking, and balance problems), and/or non-motor issues (depression, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, other issues). Most experts agree that there is no benefit to delaying medication therapy if bothersome symptoms appear, and there may be risks in delaying treatment, especially if a treatment delay results in unsteadiness, falls, and fractures.
Over the last 10-20 years the thinking has evolved on when and how to initiate medication therapy for early Parkinson’s disease. Most experts agree that the medication dosage and the timing of the medication dosage should be carefully monitored in order to maximize the control of potentially responsive Parkinson related symptoms. The recommendation that patients should be started on dopamine agonists instead of levodopa (Sinemet) has faded over the last decade, especially with the emergence of impulse control disorders and other dopamine agonist associated side effects.
The best advice we can offer Parkinson’s disease patients is to not fear treatment, and to especially not fear dopaminergic therapy. Sinemet and other Parkinson’s therapies have not been shown to be toxic or to accelerate disease progression. Dopamimergics never “stop working,” however they may require adjustment over time. If Parkinson’s disease symptoms are affecting quality of life, the work performance, or if there exists a risk of falling, treatment should be initiated. Many practitioners will start with a MAO-B drug (selegiline, rasagiline, dissolvable selegiline, other), but Parkinson’s patients should be aware that the symptomatic effects of MAO-B’s are extremely mild. It is in fact rare to remain on this drug without other Parkinson’s drugs for any significant period of time. Dopamine agonists (ropinerole, pramipexole, cabergoline, rotigotine, others) and levodopa (Sinemet, Madopar) are both excellent choices for early Parkinson’s disease therapy. The choice of agent should however, consider the individual’s comprehensive medical picture (age, co-morbidities, types of symptoms, history of neurological/psychiatric issues) as therapy should never be viewed as a “one size fits all.” Finally, patients should remember that if depression, anxiety and other issues persist following dopaminergic treatment, then antidepressant therapy may also be warranted.
Other drugs such as amantadine may be used early in Parkinson’s disease therapy, however most practitioners reserve amantadine for treatment of dyskinesia which may or may not occur later in the disease course. Patients should keep in mind that exercise is like a drug, and that a daily routine is often a great symptomatic supplement to any medication regimen. Many practitioners wait to utilize physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy later in the disease, however these modalities can often be powerful treatments when employed early in the disease. Finally, all Parkinson’s disease patients should have a general practitioner and a dermatologist involved with their care. The reason for involving “other doctors” is because with adequate Parkinson’s treatment, they will be far more likely to encounter difficulties with other medical illnesses (heart disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, etc.). Melanoma occurs more frequently in Parkinson’s disease populations.