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Young Parkinson's patients avoid tremors with treatment

January 23, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
If you're diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in your 20s or 30s, it could mean being confined to a wheelchair early on in life. Now, one Orange County woman shows us how a treatment of last resort ended up being her best option.

Five years ago, Allison Smith-Conway was having trouble lifting her left leg. She is 34 and has been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

"I was having problems multi-tasking, getting motivated. I was actually assisting my left side. it was all dominant on my left side, my symptoms," Smith-Conway said.

Dr. Christopher Duma said those who get Parkinson's early are called "yopis" for young onset Parkinson's.

The medical director of Hoag Memorial Hospital's Brain Program says, once diagnosed, the average Parkinson's patient has about nine years until they become fully disabled.

Deep brain stimulation was once considered a last resort, but it is now being used much earlier for patients like Smith-Conway.

"It's like a cardiac pace-maker, like the pace-maker for the heart. But instead of the wire going into the heart, it goes into the brain," Duma said.

Installation requires placing an electrode into the nucleus of the brain. Duma then tunnels a wire down the neck from the electrode to the generator.

Parkinson's occurs when the brain stops producing dopamine, which helps coordinate smooth movement. Brain stimulation appears to compensate for this.

"You can stop a tremor on a dime in a patient," Duma said. "Instead of seeing disability in nine years, I'm seeing no disability with patients who had these in so far."

The device works in about 90 percent of patients. Duma said there are no side effects, but there are always risks that come with brain surgery.

Smith-Conway has had the device for a year and a half, and no one would ever know she suffers from Parkinson's.

"I think it's been a life saver for me. Now, it's a personal choice for everyone, but for me, it's been the best choice," Smith-Conway said.

Duma says Smith-Conway takes about half of the medication she used to, and he adds studies show deep brain stimulation is more effective than physical therapy and medications.