Straight, No Chaser In the News: Muhammad Ali and Parkinson’s Disease

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We all mourn the passing and celebrate the life of Muhammad Ali, once the most famous athlete on the planet and certainly the most beloved. He died from complications of Parkinson’s disease, which you’ve surely heard many, many times. That which you likely know about Parkinson’s disease came from seeing its effects in Ali and/or Michael J. Fox. We honor his memory in this space by providing an understanding of the illness that defined the latter part of his life.

What is Parkinson’s?

  • Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a one of a few diseases called movement disorders based on the symptoms produced. It is the result of nerve cells in the brain not producing enough of a brain chemical called dopamine.

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What causes PD? Who is likely to get it?

  • Sometimes PD is genetic, but most cases don’t run in families. It seems that any of a variety of conditions that damage the brain’s nerve cells can result in PD. For example, exposure to chemicals in the environment might play a role. Similarly, brain trauma such as occur to boxers at the end of their careers also seems to play a role.
  • PD is more common in men than in women. Symptoms usually begin around age 60.

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What are the symptoms of PD?

  • Remember that PD is a movement disorder, and it is progressive. Oddly, symptoms often begin on one side of the body and then slowly progress to affect both sides. The four primary symptoms of PD are tremor (trembling in one’s hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face); rigidity (stiffness of the limbs and trunk); bradykinesia (slowness of movement); and postural instability (impaired balance and coordination). The net result of these symptoms over time often is difficulty walking, talking, or completing other simple tasks, such as sleeping, chewing, swallowing or speaking.

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How is PD diagnosed?

  • PD is diagnosed largely via a medical history and physical examination. No lab test exists for diagnosis.

How is PD treated?

  • There is no cure for PD, and medicines used to increase dopamine levels in the brain fluctuate in effectiveness, largely reflecting the variation in damage to the brain. Some medicines are highly effective in some patients. In severe cases, sometimes surgery and deep brain stimulation via the delivery of electrical pulses to parts of the brain controlling movement can help.

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What is the prognosis?

  • As mentioned, PD has no cure and is a chronic, progressive disorder. Left untreated, symptom will persist and get worse over time. The variety in expression of symptoms is matched with a variety in the intensity and progression. Obviously, one’s best bet is early identification and continual treatment.

What is the link with boxing?

  • It is more accurate to say boxing increases the risk of PD than to say it causes it. However, PD is directly linked to head injury and acute head trauma, and individuals who have suffered head injury are four times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than those who have never suffered head trauma.

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RIP to The Greatest. If you or a loved one develop tremors or other symptoms as described above, please get promptly evaluated.

Feel free to ask your SMA expert consultant any questions you may have on this topic.

Order your copy of Dr. Sterling’s new book Behind The Curtain: A Peek at Life from within the ER at jeffreysterlingbooks.com, iTunes, Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and wherever books are sold.

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