KUSA - It was something Katie Strittmatter had done an untold number of times in her life: swallow her food and beverages. But on Memorial Day Weekend in 2010, all of a sudden, she couldn't do it anymore.
"I had a neckache, and I just stopped swallowing. I couldn't swallow food or water," she said.
Only 31 years old at the time, Strittmatter never thought the reason she couldn't control that function was because she had Parkinson's Disease. She was shocked at the news, and the way it was delivered.
"I was alone when I was diagnosed," the mom-of-two who is now 34 years old said. "They hand you a prescription, and you're out."
Strittmatter says, after telling her husband about the diagnosis over the phone, she didn't talk about her disease for a year. Thousands of people, though, can understand her story.
"About 17,000 Coloradans are living with Parkinson's right now," Cheryl Siefert, Executive Director of Parkinson Association of the Rockies, said.
The disease causes the brain to send incorrect messages to other parts of the body, causing muscles to either resist movement or move outside of a person's control. Strittmatter experiences everything from not being able to get debit cards out of her wallet to debilitating pain and fatigue that keep her from even walking to her own bathroom.
Siefert says, though, people diagnosed with Parkinson's in recent years can have a higher quality of life, due to medical advancements, research, medication, support group and activities.
"Study after study after study shows that individuals with Parkinson's who remain active and exercise ... it slows down the progression of their symptoms," Siefert said.
Siefert points to one very well-known person who she says is an example of that point.
"People like Michael J. Fox," she said.
Fox has returned to prime-time television with The Michael J. Fox Show on NBC. University of Colorado Medical Campus Neurosurgery Research Director Dr. Aviva Abosch, who has not treated Fox, says he appears to be managing the symptoms of his Parkinson's disease very well. She says that people living with Parkinson's don't have to be as wealthy and well-known as Fox to get the same type of treatment from which he appears to be benefitting.
"If you go to an academic health care center in [cities like] New York, Denver, LA, you have access to these cutting-edge therapies," she said.
One of those cutting-edge therapies is deep brain stimulation. The process places electrodes in the brain to stop tremors and help patients have better control over their muscle movements. The University of Colorado Hospital performed 75 deep-brain stimulation surgeries in 2012. Abosch has seen the procedure get more fine-tuned.
"New electrodes have been designed," she said, noting that those electrodes can be more precisely placed in the brain now. "There are also now rechargeable batteries that are available that can be replaced every three to five years."
Abosch says those batteries are connected to the electrodes in the brain via an "extension cable" that runs up the neck.
"We can run that current down the deep-brain stimulating electrode, and we see the tremor stop [during surgery.] It's profound." She said. "The patients cry because it's such an emotional experience."
Abosch says the procedure can be more effectively performed when a patient is awake, allowing doctors to see tremors while they're happening. But staying awake during the procedure doesn't appeal to every patient.
"It's very useful and comforting for the patient to be asleep for the surgery, [but] there's critical information I as a neurosurgeon obtain from having the patient awake," Abosch said.
Advances have also been made in medications treating Parkinson's.
"There are patches available that deliver the medication in a more normally-regulated fashion than taking a pill every three hours," Abosch said.
She also notes research findings that may determine whether abnormal protein development in parts of the brain and how it could link Parkinson's Disease to other diseases.
"That could be the next generation of treatment for Parkinson's Disease. So it's very exciting," she said.
Researchers still don't know what causes Parkinson's. There is also no cure for it. Strittmatter is impressed with what researchers have done so far but says there still need to be improvements in caring for the patient and the entire family.
"This is a family disease," Strittmatter's husband Mark said, noting that he's taken on an active role in helping to run the household and take care of the kids. "For me, the hardest part about this thing, right now, is seeing Katie struggle. Obviously, a cure would be the greatest thing of all time."
For more information on support groups and classes offered by Parkinson Association of the Rockies, click: www.parkinsonrockies.org.
For information on Parkinson's Disease from the University of Colorado Hospital, visit: http://www.uch.edu/conditions/brain-nerves/parkinson-disease/.
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