EVERY hour someone in the UK is told the devastating news that they have Parkinson’s disease. There is no cure for this life-changing progressive condition which affects people’s muscles and movement and often their mental health in the later stages.

On initial diagnosis many people react with disbelief and denial. They are probably only displaying very mild symptoms and are living a normal life when they receive the shattering diagnosis.

There are no tests which conclusively prove a person has Parkinson’s disease but a doctor may suspect Parkinson’s if a person has a tremor in part of their body usually only happening at rest, has muscle stiffness or slower than usual movements.

Patients are usually asked to perform a number of simple mental and physical tasks and those with suspected Parkinson’s are referred to a specialist who carries out further tests to rule out other possible causes.

Most people who develop the condition are over 50 years old, although there are cases of younger people getting it, and it occurs when they do not have enough of the chemical dopamine (a messenger between the parts of the brain and nervous system that help control and co-ordinate body movements) because specific nerve cells in the brain have died. No-one knows why this happens.

While it is understandable that people diagnosed with Parkinson’s may not want to accept the news, there are lots of different treatments, therapies and support available to help manage the condition and support people to enjoy a good quality of life.

Parkinson’s UK is a national charity with local branches and groups all over the country supporting people with the condition. It is also a driving force for research, better treatments and patient care.

Locally the Worcester and District Branch has a number of friendship groups covering the county, which are run by volunteers. They are in Worcester, Evesham and Pershore, Wyre Forest, Droitwich and Malvern.

The aim of the friendship groups are to provide support, share information, offer activities such as specialised exercise classes which can assist with managing the condition, provide social activities and fun, as well as support for carers.

The Worcester Friendship Group holds exercise classes run by a specialist Parkinson’s physiotherapist once a week, singing classes (some Parkinson’s patients develop speech problems) once a fortnight and friendship or social meetings once a month, which might entail a visiting speaker or an outing.

Other groups offer different activities according to the members’ preferences – the Malvern group offers yoga classes and hydrotherapy sessions.

The Worcester and District Branch chairman Sue Smith said: “The idea of all these groups is fun and friendship. The exercise classes are getting stronger and stronger but all the activities start with taster sessions and then we see what the response is.”

She said people often go into denial when they are first diagnosed and they don’t want other people to know about it but the friendship groups can make a real difference to them in terms of dealing with Parkinson’s.

Specialist Parkinson’s physiotherapist Jo Eastough, who works at The Prince of Wales Community Hospital, Bromsgrove, three days a week and runs the Worcester group’s exercise classes, said: “The exercise classes are hugely important. Physical exercise can make such a difference. It is just as important as taking the medication. Now, it is not ‘use it or lose it’ – it is ‘use it and improve it’.”

She pointed out that the condition affects people differently but the aim of the specialist physiotherapy and exercise classes is to promote independence and help patients have the best quality of life they can.

Jo added that the local groups also enable people to obtain information and share their experiences. “One of the common symptoms of Parkinson’s is low mood and depression.”

Worcester and District Branch committee member Peter Penhallow, whose wife Linda has Parkinson’s, said: “Parkinson’s UK as a charity is really good. All our funding is raised locally and volunteers run friendship groups. It can be anyone – not just someone with Parkinson’s - who gets involved.

“All the money raised is used locally. If we have surplus money we can send it to the national body and target where it goes – such as to Parkinson’s nurses or research. We can say what it is used for.

“We want to make people aware of Parkinson’s disease and our groups. On in 500 people nationally have Parkinson’s. By going to a friendship group you can swap hints and tips and share experiences and information.”

Linda Penhallow said: “I think the exercise class certainly helps to keep me moving. I can walk quite a long way and I do not think I would have been able to do that without the classes.

“The singing group has definitely improved my voice. I really love the singing. It just makes me feel happy. It makes me feel better.

“The groups also help because it is quite nice to know you are not the only person who has got this problem.”

Peter added: “This sort of set up is good for carers as well. You can share experiences and information with other carers. Some of the carers join in with the singing and exercise classes.”

For more information about Parkinson’s UK and local activities contact Jackie Murrall, volunteer co-ordinator (West) – on 0344 225 9849 or email jmurrall@parkinsons.org.uk

According to the NHS, Parkinson's disease can also cause a range of other physical and mental symptoms.

Physical symptoms

• balance problems – these can make someone with the condition more likely to have a fall and injure themselves

• loss of sense of smell– sometimes occurs several years before other symptoms develop

• nerve pain – can cause unpleasant sensations, such as burning, coldness or numbness

• problems with urination – such as having to get up frequently during the night to urinate or unintentionally passing urine

• constipation

• an inability in men to obtain or sustain an erection

• difficulty for women becoming sexually aroused and achieving an orgasm

• dizziness, blurred vision or fainting when moving from a sitting or lying position to a standing one – caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure

• excessive sweating

• swallowing difficulties – this can lead to malnutrition and dehydration

• excessive production of saliva (drooling)

• problems sleeping – this can result in excessive sleepiness during the day

Cognitive and psychiatric symptoms

• depression and anxiety

• slight memory problems and problems with activities that require planning and organisation

• dementia – a group of symptoms, including more severe memory problems, personality changes, seeing things that aren't there (visual hallucinations) and believing things that aren't true (delusions)