Parkinson’s Disease

What is Parkinson’s disease?

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Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that causes uncontrollable movement. In most people, this manifests as stiffness, balance issues, coordination issues, and uncontrolled shaking.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder, which means it gets worse over time. While symptoms of this condition are at first minimally obtrusive, they can eventually hinder a person’s ability to walk and talk. In some people, Parkinson’s disease can cause sleep disorders, mental health conditions, persisting fatigue, memory decline, and some behavioral changes.

Parkinson’s disease typically presents later in life, with most people developing symptoms when they are over 40 years old. Parkinson’s is a relatively common neurological condition, effecting 1 in 500 Americans. While there is no known cure for this condition, working with a neurologist can help dramatically reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. If you believe you have Parkinson’s disease, or if you have just received a diagnosis, schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.

What causes Parkinson’s disease?

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In people with Parkinson’s disease, the cells located in the part of the brain that produces dopamine begin to die. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in coordinated muscle movements. When dopamine levels are severely and chronically depleted, people begin to exhibit symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Low levels of norepinephrine, the substance that helps regulate dopamine, have also been linked to Parkinson’s disease.

While researchers are not yet clear on what causes Parkinson’s disease, certain factors may contribute to its development. For example, males are more than 1.5 times more likely to develop Parkinson’s than females. Parkinson’s disease also appears to be more common in people with African and Asian ancestry, though geographic location may be the culprit for this higher risk. Additionally, exposure to certain toxins can increase the risk of Parkinson’s, as can some head injuries.

Genetics can also play a role in who develops Parkinson’s disease. Around 15% of people who have a family history of Parkinson’s will develop the disease themselves. Scientists believe this is tied to mutations in a certain group of genes.

What are the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease?

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Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease change and develop over time. Early symptoms can differ significantly from those that develop later in the disease’s progression. The very earliest symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are very vague, but they typically include:

  • Anosmia, or the decreased ability to smell
  • Chronic constipation
  • Stooped posture

These ambiguous symptoms are often accompanied by more noticeable motor issues. In the condition’s early stages, these motor symptoms include:

  • Stiffness in the legs and/or arms
  • Difficulty with balance
  • Consistent tripping and/or falling
  • Tremors, which occur while resting

Keep in mind that the earliest signs of Parkinson’s disease are often overlooked or unrecognized. If you are at an increased risk of developing the disease, pay close attention to concomitant potential symptoms.

Symptoms will change gradually, often over the course of several years. Secondary Parkinson’s disease symptoms can include:

  • Shuffling while walking, also known as a Parkinsonian gait
  • Sudden leg paralysis while walking
  • A persisting blank facial expression
  • Mumbled and quiet speech
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Decreased arm swinging while walking

Auxiliary and associated Parkinson’s symptoms may also include sleep paralysis, hallucinations, depression, psychosis, anxiety, memory loss, and seborrheic dermatitis.

What are the stages of Parkinson’s disease?

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Like other progressive diseases, Parkinson’s symptoms are divided into various stages. Symptoms generally worsen over time. These stages allow doctors to gauge where their patients are in the condition’s progression. Here are the five stages of Parkinson’s disease and their associated symptoms.

  • Stage 1: Stage 1 Parkinson’s disease has near-unnoticeable symptoms. If a person does experience early Parkinson’s symptoms, they will not be strong enough to disrupt everyday life. In some cases, symptoms appear on only one side of the body. Symptoms in this stage are often overlooked.
  • Stage 2: At this stage, symptoms like tremors, stiffness, and trembling become more pronounced. Posture and walking gait changes are also possible. In most cases, symptoms are not pronounced enough to hinder daily tasks. Progressing from Stage 1 to Stage 2 Parkinson’s disease can take years.
  • Stage 3: Stage 3 Parkinson’s often marks a turning point in the patient’s experience of the disease. Symptoms become more pronounced and can begin to hinder everyday tasks, like cooking and cleaning. Most doctors don’t associate new symptoms with this stage. Instead, symptoms that became noticeable in Stage 2 become more pronounced. While the individual may complete regular activities more slowly, they are usual able to maintain independence.
  • Stage 4: Patients with Stage 4 Parkinson’s disease will often require walker or cane assistance while standing or walking. At this point, the individual will likely require household support for everyday tasks.
  • Stage 5: In this most advanced stage, symptoms become severe and require constant assistance. Most patients in this stage require a wheelchair, and they may experience other neurological symptoms, like hallucinations and confusion.

Each person’s experience of Parkinson’s disease is unique. Patients progress through the stages at vastly different paces. While there are currently no treatments available to slow the disease’s progression, working with a trusted doctor can help manage symptoms.

How is Parkinson’s disease diagnosed?

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If you begin to exhibit signs of Parkinson’s disease, you will need to see a neurologist. At your appointment, the doctor will review signs and symptoms and gather a family health history. You will discuss when you began experiencing symptoms, how often they occur, and if anything appears to improve or worsen symptoms.

Parkinson’s disease, like other neurological conditions, is often diagnosed using a range of imaging tests. In many cases, this will include a CAT or MRI scan. In some cases, a doctor may as for a dopamine transporter scan, or DAT, to confirm the diagnosis. Parkinson’s disease is often diagnosed by exclusion. This means tests are used to rule out other potential conditions that have symptoms similar to Parkinson’s.

Remember that other conditions with similar symptoms have different treatment regimens. If you are at risk for developing Parkinson’s, or if you believe you may have the condition, it is imperative to get an accurate diagnosis as soon as possible.

Are there treatments available for Parkinson’s disease?

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There is no known cure for Parkinson’s. However, certain medications can dramatically reduce symptoms. These medications are designed to help manage issues with movement, walking, and tremors. In most cases, they aim to either increase the amount of dopamine in the brain. Common medications include: Levodopa, Duopa, dopamine agonists like Mirapex, COMT inhibitors, Amantadine, and MAO B inhibitors.

A doctor may also recommend a surgical procedure to reduce Parkinson’s disease symptoms. Deep brain stimulation, or DBS, involves implanting electrodes into the brain. This procedure is often reserved for people with Stage 4 or Stage 5 Parkinson’s disease.

What can people with Parkinson’s disease do to improve their quality of life?

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Doctors often recommend a regimen of exercises and dietary changes to help reduce potential mobility-related accidents. For example, Parkinson’s patients are advised to monitor their own posture and walk carefully, which can reduce the risk of a fall. Additionally, Parkinson’s patients, especially in later stages, should avoid leaning and reaching for items while standing, carrying items while walking, and pivoting on their feet. If you have a Parkinson’s diagnosis and want to maintain an exercise regimen, there are certain yoga classes designed to help ease symptoms. Tai chi is also a popular exercise hobby amongst people with Parkinson’s disease.

Diet is also an important aspect of living with Parkinson’s disease. Consuming a nutrient-rich diet can bolster brain health. Eating foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3s, for example, is recommended. Talk to your doctor about which foods you can eat to support brain health.

What is the outlook for people living with Parkinson’s disease?

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While Parkinson’s disease is not itself fatal, Parkinson’s-related complications can impact a patient’s lifespan. Experiences like blood clots, pneumonia, and falls can cause additional health issues. Additionally, Parkinson’s symptoms can significantly reduce a person’s quality of life and impact their prognosis. Depression and other mental health conditions are common in Parkinson’s patients. Accessing fast and effective medical support is imperative to address auxiliary health issues. Proper treatment increases life expectancy.

Living with a chronic illness is both physically and emotionally taxing. Most doctors will recommend that Parkinson’s patients ask for support from close friends and family. Support groups can also improve a person’s outlook after a Parkinson’s diagnosis. If you’re interested in finding community support, contact the American Parkinson Disease Association or the Parkinson’s Foundation.

Parkinson’s disease is a lifelong condition that progressively worsens. However, with medical management and certain lifestyle changes, symptoms can become manageable. If you are experiencing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, talk to your doctor.