Parkinson’s disease is a condition which affects some of the brain’s nerve cells and reduces the amount of dopamine produced. Dopamine is crucial for regulating the body’s movements – hence why the symptoms of Parkinson’s predominantly affect the person’s movement. Around 1 in 500 people are affected by Parkinson’s, the majority being men who first develop symptoms over the age of 50.
What are the signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s?
People with Parkinson’s see symptoms worsen over time, although treatments can slow the progression of the disease. The most common symptoms include:
- Involuntary shaking or tremors
- Muscles stiffness
- Slow movement
Other symptoms may include:
- Depression and anxiety
- Balancing problems
- Loss of sense of smell (anosmia)
- Difficulty sleeping and insomnia
- Memory loss
- Excessive sweating
How does Parkinson’s get diagnosed and treated?
Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s, but there are treatments to enable people with Parkinson’s to live relatively free from its effects. Patterns of several of the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s can help a doctor refer a patient to a neurologist (specialist doctor of the nervous system) for assessment.
No single test can lead to a certain diagnosis, so a neurologist will work to eliminate the likelihood of other conditions first – such as a stroke which can affect movement in similar ways to Parkinson’s.
Specialised PET (photon emission tomography) brain scans can help identify if the symptoms are caused by loss of the nerve cells consistent with a Parkinson’s diagnosis.
Treatment varies according to the individual patient’s needs. For example, certain medications such as levodopa can be used to treat tremors by artificially increasing dopamine levels in the brain.
Regular physical activity is beneficial as it helps relieve muscle stiffness.
Some people with Parkinson’s will also benefit from seeing a physiotherapist or a speech therapist if their movement or their speech is particularly impacted.
In cases where medication is of little help, a surgery to install a pulse generator in the chest may be recommended. It sends electrical current to stimulate the part of the brain affected by Parkinson’s and it can help alleviate symptoms.
There are a few ways to determine whether an employee has Parkinson’s, or to confirm a Parkinson’s diagnosis which requires reasonable adjustments:
- An employee is legally obliged to disclose their Parkinson’s if their work involves operation of machinery or vehicles which may then become a health and safety concern as a result of certain Parkinson’s symptoms, i.e. muscle stiffness.
- Even if the employee does not wish to, or have to, disclose their Parkinson’s, an employer can focus on making reasonable adjustments, rather than seeking to determine the precise disability their employee has.
- Given that Parkinson’s can evolve over time, with certain symptoms worsening as the person ages, it is important to maintain regular communication with the employee who has Parkinson’s so that the reasonable adjustments remain appropriate.
What reasonable adjustments are possible with Parkinson’s?
Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with Parkinson’s if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has Parkinson’s. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.
If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance upfront, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of Parkinson’s:
- Accommodating home or remote working: this can help if the employee has significant mobility issues, including vision problems limiting their ability to drive, which affect their ability to commute into the office. Someone with Parkinson’s is legally obliged to inform the DVLA of their diagnosis.
- Making assistive technology available and training on how to use it: such as expanded keyboards and forearm supports, as well as dictation devices, to enable easier use of a computer for employees with tremors or muscle stiffness.
- Making sure there is a flexible break schedule and easy bathroom access: for employees with Parkinson’s who may have decreased bladder or bowel control, or who have increased levels of fatigue, including as a side effect of medication.
- Raise awareness: for the employees with Parkinson’s to be better understood in the workplace, and to make employees feel comfortable with asking for help related to their Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s UK – charity working to change attitudes to the disease as well as improving healthcare and treatment for people living with Parkinson’s until a cure is found by collaborating with scientists, fundraisers, families, carers and clinicians (0808 800 0303).
The Cure Parkinson’s Trust – charity working to find disease-modifying treatments for Parkinson’s on the way to finding a cure, as well as to promote emerging therapies among clinicians (020 7487 3892).
Parkinson’s Care and Support UK – charity working to improve the lives of people living with Parkinson’s while also investing in non-pharmaceutical research which is looking for ways to slow down the progression – and even cure – the disease (020 3380 2573).