Tremors, shakes, and stiffness are all things with which people living with Parkinson’s disease have grown familiar. The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation reports that there are upwards of 1 million people in the United States living with Parkinson’s, and 60,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S. every year. A neurodegenerative condition, the disease develops gradually, and some individuals with Parkinson’s may not show symptoms for many years.
Dr. James Battista, MD, a neurologist and movement disorder specialist, moved to Charlotte and joined Novant Health’s neurology team in 2016. He received his medical training at Mount Sinai in New York, a prominent medical center with an emphasis on movement disorders and Parkinson’s disease. “Parkinson’s is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder of the nervous system that involves a loss of cells that produce a brain chemical called dopamine,” he says. “While there is no cure yet, there are medications that control and improve the symptoms while having a dramatic effect on the patient’s quality of life.”
There are four symptoms that are common in the diagnosis of Parkinson’s, though patients may not have all four. The first is a resting tremor, where the hand is relaxed but still shakes on its own. “This is unique because when you use your hand, the tremor goes away,” Dr. Battista says. The second is called bradykinesia, where patients might notice that they are still doing their normal activities, but at a slower rate than normal. Cleaning, cooking, and even normal hygiene might take a lot longer. The third symptom is rigidity or stiffness in movement. Finally, the patient might experience balance problems such as feeling like they’re shuffling their feet or taking shorter steps.
Dr. Battista says there are a growing number of treatment options to help Parkinson’s patients, which is important because no two patients are alike in their experience with the disease. Some patients may need three doses of medication a day, while others may need doses every couple of hours. Dr. Battista says that the most important thing for patients is to focus on maintaining their quality of life. “I want people to be able to continue what they’re doing,” he says. “There may be limitations at times, but it doesn’t mean they can’t still do the things they enjoy. You are not defined by your diagnosis. Find the right doctor who can help you manage the ups and downs and the emotions that come with it.”
Such was the case for Charlotte resident, Paul Ng, who found the right doctor in Dr. Battista. An avid long-distance runner and former president of a retail company, Paul had worked for 35 years and never taken a sick day. He was first misdiagnosed with essential tremors by a family doctor, but after a few months of no improvement on medication, he was sent to a neurologist who ultimately diagnosed Paul with Parkinson’s.
“Right from the beginning, I never accepted that I was getting sick,” Paul says. “It took several years before I felt that I was sick.” For the past eight years, Paul has been living with Parkinson’s. But thanks to recent advances in treatment and the help of Dr. Battista, Paul says that many of his close friends would not have known he had the condition unless he told them. “It is difficult even for some doctors to look at me and see that I have Parkinson’s,” he says.
Paul’s condition, including his tremors, are so well controlled at this point that he still manages to play in a bowling league in his spare time. He says his team is in the lead and is favored to win the championship. Additionally, he is also favored to win the bowling event for his age group in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Senior Games championship this month. Paul is also very health conscious, and he continues to eat homegrown vegetables from his garden for a good part of the year. He also includes running on the treadmill and weight training as part of his overall fitness routine.
Paul praises Dr. Battista, who has been managing his care for the past year, for his treatment plan and overall bedside manner. “At our first meeting, my wife and I were so happy,” Paul says. “He’s the most caring person. He goes out of his way to find out about how I am, and he listens to my concerns.” Dr. Battista notes the importance of time, saying he and other neurologists at Novant Health do their best to see new referrals with Parkinson’s in days rather than months.
In 2016, Paul participated in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Senior Games where he medaled in eight events and won the gold in golf. With Dr. Battista’s help, Paul and his wife plan to participate this year as well.
“I’m really excited for him,” Dr. Battista says. “Recent research shows that Parkinson’s patients who exercise regularly may experience a slower decline in health-related quality of life, which is extremely important. Patients who exercise also tend to do better and have fewer complications in the long run.” In addition to regular exercise, Dr. Battista recommends a heart-healthy diet for patients living with the condition.