Tom Wood was in his early 50s when he began to feel a strange and persistent twitch in his pinky finger. His wife, Jackie, noticed that Tom’s arm swung unnaturally when he walked. Next came a tremor that was slight at first, but then became more evident.
A few months later, Tom received an official diagnosis for his symptoms: Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative brain disorder whose cause is a mystery. It develops when the brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps control muscle movement and coordination, are damaged or impaired. Parkinson’s is progressive; in the early stages, symptoms may be mild. As the disease progresses, however, the lack of dopamine causes more significant symptoms such as tremor or shaking of the hands, arms, legs or face, stiffness, involuntary movements, balance problems, and difficulty walking or speaking. In severe cases, symptoms can become debilitating.
A former high school teacher, Tom retired in 2009 as his symptoms became more pronounced. Eventually, his tremors affected his entire body, even impairing his ability to care for himself.
After several prescription medications failed to help, Tom and Jackie consulted neurologist Melissa Houser, MD, medical director of the Shiley Brain Research Center and the Cowling Movement Disorder Clinic at Scripps Clinic. Dr. Houser suggested that he might be a candidate for a treatment known as deep brain stimulation (DBS) Surgery. DBS delivers electrical stimulation to targeted areas of the brain, overriding the abnormal signals that cause Parkinson’s symptoms and helping to restore normal movement.
During DBS, a neurosurgeon places a thin wire called a lead, each with four electrodes at the end, in each hemisphere of the patient’s brain. The electrodes are connected to an impulse generator, similar to a pacemaker, which is implanted in the chest. The generator emits a mild current that disrupts abnormal brain signals to reduce or even eliminate symptoms. The current can be adjusted at any time to change the stimulation without additional surgery and it can be shut off at any time. The entire procedure is completely reversible.
The innovative surgical procedure has been found to greatly reduce the severity of Parkinson’s symptoms — especially in patients who are “levodopa responsive” or, in Tom’s case, for whom medications are not effective. Tom agreed to try it.
In October 2011, Scripps neurosurgeon Kenneth Ott, MD, performed the two-hour procedure, which Tom says was not at all painful. He spent one night in the hospital and, during the next several months, had physical and speech therapy to help improve his movement, coordination and speaking skills.
“In the 10 years I have been working with Parkinson’s patients, I have never seen a case where tremor has been quite as severe and at the same time non-responsive to our typical Parkinson’s medications. His full body tremor affected every aspect of his life,” says Sherrie Gould, FNP, a nurse practitioner who works with Dr. Houser. “Deep brain stimulation completely calmed that. And now he is living a relatively normal life, going to exercise classes and socializing again.”
Though Tom, 64, still has some trouble speaking, his quality of life is greatly improved.
“Before the surgery, his tremor had affected everything: his head, his arms, his legs. It was just everywhere, and he couldn’t dress himself or feed himself,” says Jackie. “I am just amazed at the difference. DBS has been a total lifesaver.”
“The procedure was life-changing, and the care at Scripps has been excellent,” says Tom, adding that he and Jackie would recommend DBS to anyone with Parkinson’s who is a candidate. “We are so thankful for this procedure and for Scripps.”