Parkinson’s disease tamed after deep brain stimulation

August 26, 2014

Jeff Post likes to fish and play golf in his leisure time. But seven years ago, a nagging stiffness in his right forearm almost brought these activities to a halt. Diagnosed with tennis elbow, he went to physical therapy regularly, but the problem remained. Then out of the blue, Post developed a more worrisome symptom: tremors in his right hand and foot. 

The 49-year-old corporate executive’s search for help led him to Dr. Neal Hermanowicz, director of the UC Irvine Health Movement Disorders Program

“I was shocked when he told me the shaking, slowness and stiffness I’d been experiencing were symptoms of Parkinson’s disease,” says Post. 

Hermanowicz prescribed a combination of medications, which worked for almost five years. Then Post’s symptoms began to break through between doses. “I was moving constantly, rocking back and forth,” says Post. “Even when the tremors weren’t noticeable, my body was shaking inside. It wears you down.” 

As Post struggled with the disease, he and Hermanowicz began to discuss an option called deep brain stimulation (DBS). Performed by highly specialized neurosurgeons, DBS can relieve many of the symptoms that plague Parkinson’s disease patients when other treatments no longer work effectively. UC Irvine Medical Center is one of only a few hospitals in Orange County offering DBS.

In December 2012, Post underwent the first step of the DBS procedure—the implantation of very thin wires, called “leads,” into precisely targeted areas of his brain that were triggering his symptoms. Dr. Frank Hsu, chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery, performed the operation. 

When Hsu tested the leads immediately after they were implanted, the gentle pulses of electricity delivered to Post’s brain made an instant difference. 

“My tremors stopped right away,” says Post. “It was incredible.” 

Post chose to stay awake during the procedure. “Other patients prefer to be asleep,” says Hsu. In those cases, a portable CT scanner in the operating room targets and confirms the precise placement of the leads, substituting for the conscious patient’s responses to commands. 

In two weeks, Post returned to have Hsu implant a pacemaker-like device called a neurostimulator in his chest and connect it to the leads. Days later, the critical process of turning on the device and adjusting the settings began. “It takes several weeks to fine-tune the neurostimulator,” says Hermanowicz, who programmed Post’s DBS system. 

The procedure isn’t a cure for Parkinson’s disease, but it improves symptoms significantly for several years. Today, Post’s tremors have subsided, and he’s able to play golf and bait his own fishing hook again. He’s also reduced his medication by 50 percent. “The operation has made a huge difference in my quality of life,” he says. 

To learn more visit ucirvinehealth.org/movementdisorders.

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