By Robin Clutters

DENVER (CBS4)– April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month. It is a time to spread the word about this disease, but also a time to learn more about the treatments being offered.

File of a human brain. (Getty Images)

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, more than 1 million people are currently living with the disease in the United States. 60,000 Americans are diagnosed every year, and men are 1.5 times more likely to have Parkinson’s than women.

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On CBSN Denver, we talked to Dr. Matthew Mian, a functional neurosurgeon at Swedish Medical Center. He says Parkinson’s symptoms go beyond tremors.

“Sometimes the most outward things that we notice or that lead to the diagnosis are things like the tremor, but actually Parkinson’s disease affects all parts of the body. Many times, in retrospect, patients have had problems long before their tremor becomes apparent. That includes sleep problems, loss of sense of smell, even constipation.”

Other Parkinson’s symptoms include trouble with gait or balance, and stiffness or rigidity. Dr. Mian says unfortunately the disease is usually hard to diagnose until someone develops those outward movement symptoms.

(credit: CBS)

“Usually, Parkinson’s disease is diagnosed by a neurologist, with a formal neurologic examination. Unlike some other neurologic disorders, we don’t actually have a formal test or scan that leads to diagnosis, it’s mostly the meeting of neurologists and having a detailed examination.”

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For most Parkinson’s patients, treatment will include medications that can help them cope with some of the symptoms.

“Patients who have been on medications for some time can lose effectiveness,” says Dr. Mian. “For them, we think about a different category of treatment, and that’s something called Deep Brain Stimulation.”

Deep Brain Stimulation consists of a thin wire that enters the brain and is connected to a small battery. The device is constantly working to deliver targeted pulses of electricity to a part of the brain.

“I compare it to a pacemaker for the brain,” says Dr. Mian. “It creates a very dramatic change in a patient’s movements, so their movements become more fluid. Their tremor is much better controlled, and they often have a much less need for the medications.”

(credit: CBS)

Deep Brain Stimulation can also help patients who have essential tremor disorder, or epilepsy.

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“We’ve been doing this for about 20 years. Nowadays, it has really evolved into the standard of care for patients with advanced Parkinson’s disease, and it’s used in centers throughout the country,” says Dr. Mian. “We used to do a related therapy where instead of placing a stimulator, we would burn a small spot in the brain to create what’s called a lesion. That is the procedure that Michael J. Fox had for example. But we learned over time that if we place the stimulator instead there were certain advantages. We can turn the therapy up or down as a patient’s symptoms change over time. And the therapy fundamentally is safer and reversible.”

Robin Clutters