Palliative care is a holistic, team-based approach to managing chronic health conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease (PD). Palliative care specialists champion quality of life and can be central to navigating the challenges of PD from initial diagnosis, onward. Most insurance plans cover all or part of palliative care treatment costs.
The following article is based on a Parkinson’s Foundation Expert Briefings webinar exploring the role of palliative care in Advanced PD, hosted by Janis M. Miyasaki, MD, MEd, FRCPC, FAAN, Director of the Parkinson and Movement Disorders Program at University of Alberta. Regarded as the founder of PD palliative care, Dr. Miyasaki leads a movement disorders group comprising several neurologists, a neurosurgeon, neuropsychiatrist and geriatrician, and a dedicated interdisciplinary team.
What is Palliative Care?
It’s important to distinguish that palliative care is not hospice or end-of-life care. Palliative care practitioners help patients focus on living well now by actively treating all aspects of a disease.
- Improves life
- Provides pain and symptom relief
- Integrates psychological and spiritual aspects of patient care
- Supports patients and families; when caregivers do well, so do people with PD
- Addresses needs through multiple disciplines
- Begins early in the course of illness
- Affirms life and regards dying as a normal process
- Neither hastens or postpones death
The best palliative care emphasizes well-being. It also acknowledges difficult feelings, such as anger and despair, that can come with a Parkinson’s diagnosis. Addressing these emotions can help people with PD cope with the often-challenging job of managing day-to-day physical symptoms.
The Care Team Role
A person’s Parkinson’s disease journey often begins in a doctor or neurologist’s office. But addressing Parkinson’s changing needs, whether physical, emotional, social or spiritual, takes a team. Specialists can include doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, pharmacists, nutritionists and counselors.
People with PD can also struggle with existential distress. Different from depression, these hopeless feelings stem from trying to make sense of overwhelming events, such as a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis. It’s important to address these emotions. A psychologist or an experienced spiritual care practitioner can help.
As Parkinson’s advances, coping with pain can pose another challenge. Always consult your physician for pain management advice. One of the first lines of PD pain treatment is levodopa, a dopamine agonist. It treats motor symptoms, including rigidity and dystonia (sustained or repetitive muscle twisting, spasms or cramps), associated with PD pain. Range-of-motion exercises, alone or with assistance, also offer relief. A doctor or experienced licensed physical therapist can recommend appropriate exercises.
If levodopa and exercise aren’t adequately addressing pain, talk to your doctor about injectable botulinum toxin A (BOTOX) treatment. It can alleviate dystonia by targeting and weakening overactive muscles.
When all else fails, ask your physician about prescription pain medication. Due to drowsiness, confusion and other side effects, pain medication is often considered last.
Reducing Side Effects
It’s important to take any medications as prescribed. Skipping doses or waiting until the pain is unbearable can require larger doses of medication to treat symptoms, resulting in increased side effects.
Constipation, another unpleasant pain medication side effect, can lead to more problems, including stomach and back pain, difficulty absorbing medication and hemorrhoids.
Diet can help curtail constipation. It is important to:
- Drink 64 ounces of water each day
- Eat a well-balanced, high-fiber diet including fruit, vegetables and whole grains
- Include dried fruit such as figs, dates
- Consume more beans and less meat
- Avoid white bread, rice or pasta
Consult your doctor about constipation treatment, which can include daily exercise, abdominal massage and/or over-the-counter and prescription therapies. Read the Parkinson’s Foundation publication Constipation and Other Gastrointestinal Problems in PD for constipation solutions to discuss with your doctor.
Planning Advance Care
Palliative care includes planning for the future; a step that requires careful, thoughtful decisions. Because forms can be complicated and confusing, it is important to start the planning process early.
Aging With Dignity’s Five Wishes document can help express:
- Who makes future care decisions
- Desired medical care
- Comfort level
- Preferred treatment
- Information to share with loved ones
Palliative care fosters comprehensive Parkinson’s disease management. Initial pain management approaches include non-medication therapies and range-of-motion exercises to alleviate PD symptoms. Medication used as prescribed can also minimize pain. Identifying values and consulting a psychologist or spiritual care advisor can lessen existential distress. And advance care plans can guide future healthcare in accordance with your wishes.