Parkinson disease causes certain brain cells to die. These are the cells that help control movement and coordination. The disease leads to shaking (tremors) and trouble walking and moving.
Paralysis agitans; Shaking palsy
Nerve cells use a brain chemical called dopamine to help control muscle movement. With Parkinson disease, the brain cells that make dopamine slowly die. Without dopamine, the cells that control movement cannot send messages to the muscles. This makes it hard to control the muscles. Slowly, over time, this damage gets worse. No one knows what causes these brain cells to waste away.
Parkinson disease most often develops after age 50. It is one of the most common nervous system problems in older adults.
- The disease tends to affect men more than women, although women also develop the disease. Parkinson disease sometimes runs in families.
- The disease can occur in younger adults. In such cases, it is often due to the person's genes.
- Parkinson disease is rare in children.
Symptoms may be mild at first. For instance, you may have a mild tremor or a slight feeling that one leg is stiff and dragging. Symptoms may affect one or both sides of the body.
General symptoms may include:
- Problems with balance and walking
- Rigid or stiff muscles
- Muscle aches and pains
- Low blood pressure when you stand up
- Stooped posture
- Sweating and not being able to control your body temperature
- Slow blinking
- Difficulty swallowing
- Slowed, quieter speech and monotone voice
- No expression in your face (like you are wearing a mask)
Movement problems may include:
- Difficulty starting movement, such as starting to walk or getting out of a chair
- Difficulty continuing to move
- Slowed movements
- Loss of small hand movements (writing may become small and difficult to read)
- Difficulty eating
Symptoms of shaking (tremors):
- Usually occur when your limbs are not moving; this is called resting tremor
- Occur when your arm or leg is held out
- Go away when you move
- May be worse when you are tired, excited, or stressed
- Can cause you to rub your finger and thumb together without meaning to (called pill-rolling tremor)
- Eventually may occur in your head, lips, tongue, and feet
Other symptoms may include:
Exams and Tests
Your health care provider may be able to diagnose Parkinson disease based on your symptoms and a physical exam. But the symptoms can be hard to pin down, particularly in older adults. Symptoms are easier to recognize as the illness gets worse.
The examination may show:
- Difficulty starting or finishing a movement
- Jerky, stiff movements
- Muscle loss
- Shaking (tremors)
- Changes in your heart rate
- Normal muscle reflexes
Your doctor may do some tests to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms.
There is no cure for Parkinson disease, but treatment can help control your symptoms.
Your provider will prescribe medicines to help control your shaking and movement symptoms.
At certain times during the day, the medicine may wear off and symptoms can return. If this happens, your provider may need to change any of the following:
- Type of medicine
- Amount of time between doses
- The way you take the medicine
You may also need to take medicines to help with:
- Mood and thinking problems
- Pain relief
- Sleep problems
- Drooling (botulinum toxin is often used)
Parkinson medicines can cause severe side effects, including:
- Seeing or hearing things that are not there (hallucinations)
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Feeling light-headed or fainting
- Behaviors that are hard to control, such as gambling
Tell your provider right away if you have these side effects. Never change or stop taking any medicines without talking with your provider. Stopping some medicines for Parkinson disease may lead to a severe reaction. Work with your provider to find a treatment plan that works for you.
As the disease gets worse, symptoms such as stooped posture, frozen movements, and speech problems may not respond to the medicines.
Surgery may be an option for some people. Surgery does not cure Parkinson disease, but it may help ease symptoms. Types of surgery include:
- Deep brain stimulation. This involves placing electric stimulators in areas of the brain that control movement.
- Surgery to destroy brain tissue that causes Parkinson symptoms.
- Stem cell transplant and other procedures are being studied.
Certain lifestyle changes may help you cope with Parkinson disease:
- Stay healthy by eating nutritious foods and not smoking.
- Make changes in what you eat or drink if you have swallowing problems.
- Use speech therapy to help you adjust to changes in your swallowing and speech.
- Stay active as much as possible when you feel good. Do not overdo it when your energy is low.
- Rest as needed during the day and avoid stress.
- Use physical therapy and occupational therapy to help you stay independent and reduce the risk of falls.
- Place handrails throughout your house to help prevent falls. Place them in bathrooms and along stairways.
- Use assistive devices, when needed, to make movement easier. These devices may include special eating utensils, wheelchairs, bed lifts, shower chairs, and walkers.
- Talk to a social worker or other counseling service to help you and your family cope with the disorder. These services can also help you get outside help, such as Meals on Wheels.
Parkinson disease support groups can help you cope with the changes caused by the disease.
Medicines can help most people with Parkinson disease. How well medicines relieve symptoms and for how long, can be different in each person.
If not treated, the disorder gets worse until a person is totally disabled. Parkinson disease may lead to a decline in brain function and early death.
Parkinson disease may cause problems such as:
- Difficulty performing daily activities
- Difficulty swallowing or eating
- Disability (differs from person to person)
- Injuries from falls
- Pneumonia from breathing in saliva or from choking on food
- Side effects of medicines
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if:
- You have symptoms of Parkinson disease
- Symptoms get worse
- New symptoms occur
If you take medicines for Parkinson disease, tell your provider about any side effects, which may include:
- Changes in alertness, behavior, or mood
- Delusional behavior
- Involuntary movements
- Loss of mental functions
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe confusion or disorientation
Also call your provider if the condition gets worse and home care is no longer possible.
American Parkinson Disease Association. Parkinson's Disease Handbook: A Guide for Patients and Their Families. Revised 2009. Available at: www.apdaparkinson.org/uploads/files/MP51919AmParkinsonHBK-vaU.pdf. Accessed September 15, 2015.
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Duker AP, Espay AJ. Surgical treatment of Parkinson disease: past, present, and future. Neurol Clin. 2013;31:799-808. PMID: 23896506 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23896506.
Jankovic J. Movement disorders. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 71.
Zesiewicz TA, Sullivan KL, Arnulf I, et al. Practice parameter: treatment of nonmotor symptoms of Parkinson disease: report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology. 2010;74:924-931.
Joseph V. Campellone, MD, Division of Neurology, Cooper University Hospital, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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