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What is Degenerative Disease: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Definition & Overview

A degenerative disease is a type of a medical condition that causes a tissue or organ to deteriorate over time. There are quite a number of degenerative diseases and many of them are associated with aging, or gets worse during the aging process.

Degenerative diseases are classified into three main groups: cardiovascular, neoplastic, and nervous system. The most common cardiovascular diseases are hypertension, coronary disease, and myocardial infarction. Neoplastic diseases include tumours and cancer. Diseases that affect the nervous system include Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Degenerative diseases are caused by a wide variety of factors. Some are a direct result of normal wear and tear of the body, while others are perpetuated by poor health or an unhealthy lifestyle.

Many degenerative diseases can be cured, but there are still quite a few that have no treatment. In such cases, the available options are designed to relieve the symptoms to help patients have a normal life as much as possible.

Some of the most common types of degenerative diseases are cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoporosis. Millions of people around the world are affected by these diseases. In fact, in most countries, certain types of degenerative diseases are consistently among the top causes of mortality.

Cause of Condition

Many degenerative diseases are caused by factors that are yet to be identified. However, due to advances in imaging technology, genetics, biochemistry, and cell biology, scientists have been able to identify similarities among many degenerative diseases.

They discovered that a key similarity is the presence of abnormal proteins. However, precisely how these abnormal proteins cause cell deterioration is still a mystery. Solving this mystery will pave the way to improve the current available treatment options or create new treatments that not only relieve the symptoms, but also cure the disease itself.

Cancer is a type of degenerative disease that is caused by abnormal cells that continue to grow, multiply, and spread throughout the body. Although there are many known factors that contribute to the formation of cancer cells, the exact cause is yet to be determined.

Parkinson’s is another common degenerative disease that results in the loss of muscle control due to abnormal functioning neurons. The reason why healthy neurons become impaired is still a mystery, but scientists have been able to compile a list of risk factors, such as toxins in the environment and oxidative stress.

Alzheimer’s is also a common degenerative disease that results in the impairment of higher intellectual functions. While the exact cause of this disease has yet to be discovered, scientists are strongly focusing on the theory that the metals iron, aluminum, and copper are the main culprits.

Key Symptoms

The symptoms of degenerative diseases vary widely. Each type has its own set of symptoms, although some symptoms are common in many types of diseases.

Some degenerative diseases do not display any symptoms at all during their early stages. For instance, cancer while in its early stages may not have any symptom, but as a malignant tumour grows large enough to be detected, it will produce a variety of symptoms. According to the American Cancer Society, the seven early signs of cancer are change in bowel habits, a sore that does not heal, unusual bleeding, thickening of lumps in the breast, testicles, or other parts of the body, indigestion or swallowing difficulties, obvious changes in size, color, or shape of a mouth sore, mole, or wart, and a nagging cough.

The most common symptoms of cancer are persistent headaches, fatigue, nausea, chronic pain, repeated infections, and persistent fever.

The signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s are memory loss, challenge in solving problems, difficulty performing normal tasks, confusion with place or time, having trouble in understanding images, problems in speaking words and in writing, frequently misplacing things, withdrawing from social activities, and mood and behavioral changes.

The most common signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are tremors, rigid muscles, slow movements, writing and speech challenges, impaired balance and posture, and difficulty in performing automatic movements.

Who to See & Types of Treatment Available

Most degenerative disease cases are only discovered after a close examination of a primary complaint. Most patients approach their family doctors with a particular complaint, such as chronic pain and excessive coughing. After performing several diagnostic procedures, the doctor begins to suspect that the underlying cause is a degenerative disease.

The doctor will then investigate further to pinpoint the exact cause or type of disease and then refer the patient to a specialist for further diagnosis and treatment.

Some degenerative diseases, such as certain types of cancers actually have a cure. Others, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s cannot be cured. The treatment for these conditions is designed to manage the symptoms as much as possible.

For instance, Parkinson’s disease cannot be cured, but medications, such as carbidopa-levodopa help in managing the symptoms. Patients undergoing this treatment notice an improvement in their walking and movement abilities, and a significant reduction in tremors.

Alzheimer’s also does not have a cure. However, medications are available to help manage the symptoms. The most common medications used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s are cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine. These medications help in preventing the symptoms from getting worse, but only for a certain time. They only slow the progression of the disease. During this period, patients will need all the support they can get.

Apart from taking medications, patients with Alzheimer’s will also need to make a variety of lifestyle changes to help them cope with the disease. These changes include eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and making changes to their homes. The homes of Alzheimer’s patients need to be very simple. Doctors recommend that their homes have only the basic furniture, fewer mirrors, and additional safety features.

Alzheimer’s patients also need to have a mobile phone handy at all times so that they can call someone in case they get lost or confused.

References:

  • Chou R, Atlas SJ, Stanos SP, Rosenquist RW. Nonsurgical interventional therapies for low back pain: a review of the evidence for an American Pain Society clinical practice guideline. Spine. 2009;34:1078-1093. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20357643

  • Chou R, Baisden J, Carragee Ej, Resnick DK, Shaffer WO, Loeser JD. Surgery for low back pain: a review of the evidence for an American Pain Society clinical practice guideline. Spine. 2009;34:1094-1109.