Disease looks like Parkinson's, but treatment different

April 7, 2011 5:03:23 AM PDT
This year, tens of thousands of Americans will face a devastating diagnosis: Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, or dementia. But doctors now say sometimes when people think they have one of these debilitating diseases, their brains are really saying they have something else -- a neurological disease that affects one in every 200 adults over age 65.

"I couldn't walk properly. I couldn't keep my balance. You start to feel like your feet are attached to the floor, and you can't pick your feet up. I couldn't get my words out," said Ramona Luckman, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's.

In 2007, a doctor told 69-year-old Ramona Luckman her symptoms added up to one thing -- Parkinson's.

"That just threw me for a loop, and I started to cry," said Luckman.

But two agonizing years later, CT scans confirmed Luckman didn't have Parkinson's at all. It was NPH -- normal pressure hydrocephalus. NPH is a buildup of cerebral spinal fluid that enlarges the ventricles -- those black spaces you see in the brain.

"They believe that the symptoms are a result of the expansion of these fluid-filled spaces," said Joseph Zabramski, MD, Neurological Surgeon, Chief, Section of Cerebrovascular Disease, Barrow Neurological Inst.

Although symptoms of NPH can mimic Parkinson's, dementia or even Alzheimer's, treatment for this neurological disorder is very different.

A programmable shunt was placed in Luckman's brain. It drains about a cup of fluid a day through a long tube into her abdomen.

"What happens is when you start to drain the fluid, the patient's symptoms dramatically resolve," said Zabramski.

"It worked. I feel that I've got about 85 to 90 percent of my abilities back," Luckman said.

Now, with a steady hand and an eye for every detail, Luckman is healthy, happy and back in control.

More than 750,000 Americans may be living with NPH with many of those unaware they are affected.

Studies have shown about 5 percent of dementia is actually caused by NPH -- not Alzheimer's. Though NPH can occur at any age, it's most commonly seen in adults over age 60.