Tremors are a key symptom of Parkinson’s disease. Current treatments for tremors usually involve medication (and to a lesser degree, physical activity), but most medications used to treat Parkinson’s often come with serious mental and physical side effects. However, one alternative form of treatment for Parkinson’s disease can almost completely eliminate tremors and doesn’t come with the same side effects as drugs: A type of brain surgery called deep brain stimulation, or DBS.
What is deep brain stimulation?
Deep brain stimulation is a type of therapy done in people who suffer from severe forms of Parkinson’s disease that cannot be adequately managed through medication. The treatment involves an electrode wire, or lead (surgically implanted into the brain) that communicates with a device called a neurostimulator (surgically implanted into the chest). The electrode wire is connected to the neurostimulator through another wire called an extension. The neurostimulator then sends electrical signals to the lead in the brain which block certain symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (described below).
The procedure has been shown to be safe and effective, with minimal side effects, if any. A large study published in 2019 in Parkinsonism and Related Disorders found that DBS “significantly reduced” tremor symptoms in Parkinson’s patients. During the study, researchers tested two methods of deep brain stimulation called STN (subthalamic nucleus) and GPi (globus pallidus internus) and found that both were equally effective at reducing tremor severity.
Not only can DBS significantly reduce tremor, it can also treat other symptoms of Parkinson’s such as slowed movement, difficulty walking, stiffness, and rigidity.
Side effects and limitations of deep brain stimulation
DBS is not without its limitations, though. The procedure cannot cure Parkinson’s disease, and it does not improve some symptoms of the condition such as speech or memory issues–meaning Parkinson’s patients who undergo the procedure must continue to take their prescribed medication. Furthermore, as the treatment is a type of brain surgery, it can carry the risk of stroke, seizures, brain bleeding, or infection, although these side effects are unlikely to occur.
Is DBS right for me?
While deep brain stimulation is certainly an effective treatment for some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, not everyone is eligible for the procedure. In fact, DBS is only considered an option once the patient does not properly respond to medication. The Parkinson’s Foundation has a list of criteria for patients considering DBS (criteria may vary depending on medical organization or group):
- Patient must have had Parkinson’s disease symptoms for at least 5 years.
- Patient has fluctuations in symptoms despite regular, consistent medication dosing.
- Patient has dyskinesias.
- Patient cannot tolerate medications due to side effects.
- Patient is unable to control tremor through medication and has tried multiple combinations of different medications.
- Patient has Parkinson’s disease symptoms that inhibit daily activities.
If you or a loved one meet any of these criteria, deep brain stimulation may be something to discuss with your doctor.
Written by Natan Rosenfeld