Parkinson’s Disease

Last Updated August 2022 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Robert "Chuck" Rich, Jr., MD, FAAFP

What is Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a kind of movement disorder. It affects the nervous system and causes problems with muscle movement. It is a chronic and progressive disease. This means it doesn’t go away, and the symptoms get worse over time.

Some nerve cells in the brain make a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine sends signals to help coordinate movement and coordination. In people who have Parkinson’s disease, these cells die or do not work properly. The level of dopamine produced decreases. This affects the person’s ability to control their movement normally.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, but treatment can help relieve the symptoms.

Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease

The 4 primary motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are:

  • Tremor (shaking or trembling) of the hands, arms, legs, jaw, or face. Tremors caused by Parkinson’s may be barely noticeable at first. They get worse over time. Tremors tend to get worse when the person is at rest and better when the person moves. The tremors may affect one side of the body more than the other.
  • Slowed movements (bradykinesia). Over time, a person who has Parkinson’s may begin to move slowly and take a long time to perform simple tasks. This includes getting out of a chair, buttoning a shirt, or cutting food.
  • Stiff muscles (also called rigidity). Over time, muscles in the body may contract and become stiff, which makes it hard to move them. This can make it difficult for a person to do simple tasks, including feeding themselves, standing up, or walking.
  • Posture and balance problems. Parkinson’s disease can make it hard for a person to stand up or sit up straight. It can also cause balance problems when sitting, standing, or walking. This can lead to falls.

Other motor symptoms include:

  • Difficulty moving your feet. Your feet feel like they are glued to the floor. It feels impossible to step forward.
  • Handwriting shrinkage. The slowed movements cause problems with repetitive actions. This can make handwriting get smaller over time.
  • Mask-like expression. Your face may look less expressive than normal.
  • Quick movements. Some people with Parkinson’s experience movements that are too quick instead of too slow.

There are also several non-motor symptoms that patients with Parkinson’s experience. These include:

  • Loss of smell
  • Constipation
  • Mood disorders
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Excessive saliva
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Vision or dental problems
  • Fatigue or loss of energy

Some people with Parkinson’s develop cognitive issues. This includes problems with memory, confusion, and slowed thinking. In some cases, they develop Parkinson’s-related dementia. This is a separate form of dementia that is unique to Parkinson’s patients.

What causes Parkinson’s disease?

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes Parkinson’s disease. In some people, genetics seem to play a role. These people could have inherited the genes for Parkinson’s disease from a family member. Or they could have a gene mutation. Environmental factors may also play a role. For example, long-term exposure to certain toxins, such as pesticides, may increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease. You have a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s if you are over age 60. Men get it more often than women.

How is Parkinson’s disease diagnosed?

There is not a test that can confirm you have Parkinson’s. You must experience at least 2 of the 4 main motor symptoms before your doctor will consider it. They will ask about your medical history and do a physical exam. If your doctor thinks you have Parkinson’s disease, they may refer you to a neurologist. The neurologist will have you complete tasks that use your nervous system. These are intended to test your balance, muscles, gait, and agility. They may also do imaging tests, such as a CT or MRI scan, to rule out other conditions.

Can Parkinson’s disease be prevented or avoided?

There is no known way to prevent or avoid getting Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease treatment

There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. But medicines can help control the symptoms. They often produce very good results, especially in the earlier stages of the disease. The most common medicine used to treat Parkinson’s disease is carbidopa-levodopa. This helps increase the amount of dopamine in your brain. Other classes of medicines, such as dopamine agonists or anticholinergics, can also help. Your doctor will recommend the best treatment for you.

In addition to medicine, your doctor may also recommend exercise or physical therapy. These can help you control your movements better. In some cases, surgery can also help relieve symptoms. Deep brain stimulation has been approved to treat many stages of Parkinson’s. Electrodes are inserted in your brain, and electrical impulses are sent to stimulate it.

Living with Parkinson’s disease

Living with a chronic illness can be frustrating and discouraging. Parkinson’s will gradually get worse. You will eventually have trouble with simple tasks. These include walking, talking, and eating, among many others. It is common for people with Parkinson’s to develop depression. Antidepressant medicines are available and can help with your depression symptoms. If you’ve been feeling persistently sad or hopeless, call your doctor. There is help available.

Joining a support group can be particularly helpful for Parkinson’s patients. It is helpful to have people around you who know exactly what you’re going through. It is also a good idea to eat a healthy diet, exercise, and stay as active as you can.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Could Parkinson’s disease be a sign of another condition?
  • Does Parkinson’s disease run in families? Am I at risk?
  • What kinds of tests will I need?
  • What is being done to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease?
  • What types of medicines treat Parkinson’s disease, and are there side effects?
  • What are my chances of developing Parkinson’s-related dementia?
  • Will I eventually need long-term care?
  • Can I die from Parkinson’s disease?