Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. Symptoms start gradually, sometimes staring with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. Tremors are common, but the disorder also commonly causes stiffness or slowing of movement.
In the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, your face may show little or no expression. Your arms may not swing when you walk. Your speech may become soft or slurred. Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsen as your condition progresses over time.
Although Parkinson’s disease can’t be cured, medications might significantly improve your symptoms. Occasionally, your doctor may suggest surgery to regulate certain regions of your brain and improve your symptoms.
Parkinson’s disease signs and symptoms can be different for everyone. Early signs may be mild and go unnoticed. Symptoms often begin in one side of your body and usually remain worse on that side, even after symptoms begin to affect both sides.
Parkinson’s signs and symptoms may include:
- Tremor. A tremor, or shaking, usually begins in a limb, often your hand or fingers. You may rub your thumb and forefinger back-and-forth, known as a pill-rolling tremor. Your hand may tremor when it’s at rest.
- Slowed movement (bradykinesia). Over time, Parkinson’s disease may slow your movement, making simple tasks more time-consuming. Your steps may become shorter when you walk. It may be difficult to get out of a chair. You may drag your feet as you try to walk.
- Rigid muscles. Muscle stiffness may occur in any part of your body. The stiff muscles can be painful and limit your range of motion.
- Impaired posture and balance. Your posture may become stooped, or you may have balance problems as a result of Parkinson’s disease.
- Loss of automatic movements. You may have a decreased ability to perform unconscious movements, including blinking, smiling or swinging your arms when you walk.
- Speech changes. You may speak softly, quickly, slur or hesitate before talking. Your speech may be more of a monotone rather than with the usual inflections.
- Writing changes. It may become hard to write, and your writing may appear small.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you have any of the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease – not only to diagnose your condition, but also to rule out other causes for your symptoms.
In Parkinson’s disease, certain nerve cells (neurons) in the brain gradually break down or die. Many of the symptoms are due to a loss of neurons that produce a chemical messenger in your brain called dopamine. When dopamine levels decrease, it causes abnormal brain activity, leading to symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
The cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, but several factors appear to play a role, including:
Your genes. Researchers have identified specific genetic mutations that can cause Parkinson’s disease. But these are uncommon except in rare cases with many family members affected by Parkinson’s disease.
However, certain gene variations appear to increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease but with a relatively small risk of Parkinson’s disease for each of these genetic markers.
Environmental triggers. Exposure to certain toxins or environmental factors may increase the risk of later Parkinson’s disease, but the risk is relatively small.
Researchers have also noted that many changes occur in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease, although it is not clear why these changes occur. These changes include:
The presence of Lewy bodies. Clumps of specific substances within brain cells are microscopic markers of Parkinson’s disease. They are called Lewy bodies, and researchers believe these Lewy bodies hold an important clue to the cause of Parkinson’s disease.
Alpha-synuclein is found within Lewy bodies. Although many substances are found within Lewy bodies, scientists believe an important one is the natural and widespread protein called alpha-synuclein (a-synuclein). It’s found in all Lewy bodies in a clumped form that cells can’t break down. This is currently an important focus among Parkinson’s disease researchers.
Risk factors for Parkinson’s disease include:
- Age. Young adults rarely experience Parkinson’s disease. It ordinarily begins in middle or late life, and the risk increases with age. People usually develop the disease around age 60 or older.
- Heredity. Having a close relative with Parkinson’s disease increases the chances that you’ll develop the disease. However, your risks are still small unless you have many relatives in your family with Parkinson’s disease.
- Sex. Men are more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than are women.
- Exposure to toxins. Ongoing exposure to herbicides and pesticides may slightly increase your risk of Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is often accompanied by these additional problems, which may be treatable:
Thinking difficulties. You may experience cognitive problems (dementia) and thinking difficulties. These usually occur in the later stages of Parkinson’s disease. Such cognitive problems aren’t very responsive to medications.
Depression and emotional changes. You may experience depression, sometimes in the very early stages. Receiving treatment for depression can make it easier to handle the other challenges of Parkinson’s disease. You may also experience other emotional changes, such as fear, anxiety or loss of motivation. Doctors may give you medications to treat these symptoms.
Swallowing problems. You may develop difficulties with swallowing as your condition progresses. Saliva may accumulate in your mouth due to slowed swallowing, leading to drooling.
Chewing and eating problems. Late-stage Parkinson’s disease affects the muscles in your mouth, making chewing difficult. This can lead to choking and poor nutrition.
Sleep problems and sleep disorders. People with Parkinson’s disease often have sleep problems, including waking up frequently throughout the night, waking up early or falling asleep during the day.
People may also experience rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder, which involves acting out your dreams. Medications may help your sleep problems.
Bladder problems. Parkinson’s disease may cause bladder problems, including being unable to control urine or having difficulty urinating.
Constipation. Many people with Parkinson’s disease develop constipation, mainly due to a slower digestive tract.
You may also experience:
- Blood pressure changes. You may feel dizzy or lightheaded when you stand due to a sudden drop in blood pressure (orthostatic hypotension).
- Smell dysfunction. You may experience problems with your sense of smell. You may have difficulty identifying certain odors or the difference between odors.
- Fatigue. Many people with Parkinson’s disease lose energy and experience fatigue, especially later in the day. The cause isn’t always known.
- Pain. Some people with Parkinson’s disease experience pain, either in specific areas of the bodies or throughout their bodies.
- Sexual dysfunction. Some people with Parkinson’s disease notice a decrease in sexual desire or performance.
Because the cause of Parkinson’s is unknown, proven ways to prevent the disease also remain a mystery.
Some research has shown that regular aerobic exercise might reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease.
Some other research has shown that people who drink caffeine – which is found in coffee, tea and cola – get Parkinson’s disease less often than those who don’t drink it. However, it is still not known whether caffeine actually protects against getting Parkinson’s, or is related in some other way. Currently there is not enough evidence to suggest drinking caffeinated beverages to protect against Parkinson’s. Green tea is also related to a reduced risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
No specific test exists to diagnose Parkinson’s disease. Your doctor trained in nervous system conditions (neurologist) will diagnose Parkinson’s disease based on your medical history, a review of your signs and symptoms, and a neurological and physical examination. Your doctor may suggest a specific single-photon emission computerized tomography SPECT scan called a dopamine transporter (DAT) scan. Although this can help support the suspicion that you have Parkinson’s disease, it is your symptoms and neurologic examination that ultimately determine the correct diagnosis. Most people do not require a DAT scan.
Your doctor may order lab tests, such as blood tests, to rule out other conditions that may be causing your symptoms.
Imaging tests – such as MRI, CT, ultrasound of the brain, and PET scans – may also be used to help rule out other disorders. Imaging tests aren’t particularly helpful for diagnosing Parkinson’s disease.
In addition to your examination, your doctor may give you carbidopa-levodopa (Rytary, Sinemet, others), a Parkinson’s disease medication. You must be given a sufficient dose to show the benefit, as low doses for a day or two aren’t reliable. Significant improvement with this medication will often confirm your diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
Sometimes it takes time to diagnose Parkinson’s disease. Doctors may recommend regular follow-up appointments with neurologists trained in movement disorders to evaluate your condition and symptoms over time and diagnose Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease can’t be cured, but medications can help control your symptoms, often dramatically. In some later cases, surgery may be advised.
Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes, especially ongoing aerobic exercise. In some cases, physical therapy that focuses on balances and stretching also is important. A speech-language pathologist may help improve your speech problems.
Medications may help you manage problems with walking, movement and tremor. These medications increase or substitute for dopamine.
People with Parkinson’s disease have low brain dopamine concentrations. However, dopamine can’t be given directly, as it can’t enter your brain.
You may have significant improvement of your symptoms after beginning Parkinson’s disease treatment. Over time, however, the benefits of drugs frequently diminish or become less consistent. You can usually still control your symptoms fairly well.
Medications your doctor may prescribe include:
Carbidopa-levodopa. Levodopa, the most effective Parkinson’s disease medication, is a natural chemical that passes into your brain and is converted to dopamine.
Levodopa is combined with carbidopa (Lodosyn), which protects levodopa from early conversion to dopamine outside your brain. This prevents or lessens side effects such as nausea.
Side effects may include nausea or lightheadedness (orthostatic hypotension).
After years, as your disease progresses, the benefit from levodopa may become less stable, with a tendency to wax and wane (“wearing off”).
Also, you may experience involuntary movements (dyskinesia) after taking higher doses of levodopa. Your doctor may lessen your dose or adjust the times of your doses to control these effects.
Carbidopa-levodopa infusion. Duopa is a brand-name medication made up of carbidopa and levodopa. However, it’s administered through a feeding tube that delivers the medication in a gel form directly to the small intestine.
Duopa is for patients with more-advanced Parkinson’s who still respond to carbidopa-levodopa, but who have a lot of fluctuations in their response. Because Duopa is continually infused, blood levels of the two drugs remain constant.
Placement of the tube requires a small surgical procedure. Risks associated with having the tube include the tube falling out or infections at the infusion site.
Dopamine agonists. Unlike levodopa, dopamine agonists don’t change into dopamine. Instead, they mimic dopamine effects in your brain.
They aren’t as effective as levodopa in treating your symptoms. However, they last longer and may be used with levodopa to smooth the sometimes off-and-on effects of levodopa.
Dopamine agonists include pramipexole (Mirapex), Ropinirole (Requip) and rotigotine (Neupro, given as a patch). Apomorphine (Apokyn), is a short-acting injectable dopamine agonist used for quick relief.
Some of the side effects of dopamine agonists are similar to the side effects of cabidopa-levodopa. But they can also include hallucinations, sleepiness and compulsive behaviors such as hypersexuality, gambling and eating. If you’re taking these medications and you behave in a way that’s out of character for you, talk to your doctor.
MAO B inhibitors. These medications include selegiline (Eldepryl, Zelapar), rasagiline (Azilect) and safinamide (Xadago). They help prevent the breakdown of brain dopamine by inhibiting the brain enzyme monoamine oxidase B (MAO B). This enzyme metabolizes brain dopamine. Side effects may include nausea or insomnia. When added to carbidopa-levodopa, these medications increase the risk of hallucinations.
These medications are not often used in combination with most antidepressants or certain narcotics due to potentially serious but rare reactions. Check with your doctor before takin any additional medications with an MAO B inhibitor.
Catechol O-methyltransferase (COMT) inhibitors. Entacapone (Comtan) is the primary medication from this class. This medication mildly prolongs the effect of levodopa therapy by blocking an enzyme that breaks down dopamine.
Side effects, including an increased risk of involuntary movements (dyskinesia) mainly result from an enhanced levodopa effect. Other side effects include diarrhea or other enhanced levodopa side effects.
Tolcapone (Tasmar) is another COMT inhibitor that is rarely prescribed due to a risk of serious liver damage and liver failure.
Anticholinergics. These medications were used for many years to help control the tremor associated with Parkinson’s disease. Several anticholinergic medications are available, including benztropine (Cogentin) or trihexyphenidyl.
However, their modest benefits are often offset by side effects such as impaired memory, confusion, hallucinations, constipation, dry mouth and impaired urination.
Amantadine. Doctors may prescribe amantadine alone to provide short-term relief of symptoms of mild, early-stage Parkinson’s disease. It may also be given with carbidopa-levodopa therapy during the later stages of Parkinson’s disease to control involuntary movements (dyskinesia) induced by carbidopa-levodopa.
Side effects may include a purple mottling of the skin, ankle swelling or hallucinations.
Deep brain stimulation. In deep brain stimulation (DBS), surgeons implant electrodes into a specific part of your brain. The electrodes are connected to a generator implanted in your chest near your collarbone that sends electrical pulses to your brain and may reduce your Parkinson’s disease symptoms.
Your doctor may adjust your settings as necessary to treat your condition. Surgery involves risks, including infections, stroke or brain hemorrhage. Some people experience problems with the DBS system or have complications due to stimulation, and your doctor may need to adjust or replace some parts of the system.
Deep brain stimulation is most often offered to people with advanced Parkinson’s disease who have unstable medication (levodopa) responses. DBS can stabilize medication fluctuations, reduce or halt involuntary movements (Dyskinesia), reduce tremor, reduce rigidity, and improve slowing of movement.
DBS is effective in controlling erratic and fluctuating responses to levodopa or for controlling dyskinesia that doesn’t improve with medication adjustments.
However, DBS isn’t helpful for problems that don’t respond to levodopa therapy apart from tremor. A tremor may be controlled by DBS even if the tremor isn’t responsive to levodopa.
Although DBS may provide sustained benefit for Parkinson’s symptoms, it doesn’t keep Parkinson’s disease from progressing.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If you’ve received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, you’ll need to work closely with your doctor to find a treatment plan that offers you the greatest relief from symptoms with the fewest side effects. Certain lifestyle changes also may help make living with Parkinson’s disease easier.
While no food or combination of food has been proved to help in Parkinson’s disease, some foods may help ease some of the symptoms. For example, eating foods high in fiber and drinking an adequate amount of fluids can help prevent constipation that is common in Parkinson’s disease.
A balanced diet also provides nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, that might be beneficial or for people with Parkinson’s disease.
Exercising may increase your muscle strength, flexibility and balance. Exercise can also improve your well-being and reduce depression or anxiety.
Your doctor may suggest you work with a physical therapist to learn an exercise program that works for you. You may also try exercises such as walking, swimming, gardening, dancing, water aerobics or stretching.
Parkinson’s disease can disturb your sense of balance, making it difficult to walk with a normal gait. Exercise may help improve your balance. These suggestions may also help:
- Try not to move too quickly
- Aim for your heel to strike the floor first when you’re walking
- If you notice yourself shuffling, stop and check your posture. It’s best to stand up straight.
- Look in front of you, not directly down, while walking.
In the later stages of the disease, you may fall more easily. In fact, you may be thrown off balance by just a small push or bump. The following suggestions may help:
- Make a U-turn instead of pivoting your body over your feet
- Distribute your weight evenly between both feet, and don’t lean.
- Avoid carrying things while you walk.
- Avoid walking backward.
Daily living activities
Daily living activities – such as dressing, eating, bathing and writing – can be difficult for people with Parkinson’s disease. An occupational therapist can show you techniques that make daily life easier.
Supportive therapies can help ease some of the symptoms and complications of Parkinson’s disease, such as pain, fatigue and depression. When performed in combination with your treatments, these therapies might improve your quality of life:
Massage. Massage therapy can reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation. This therapy, however, is rarely covered by health insurance.
Tai chi. An ancient form of Chinese exercise, tai chi employs slow, flowing motions that may improve flexibility, balance and muscle strength. Tai chi may also prevent falls. Several forms of tai chi are tailored for people of any age or physical condition.
A study showed tai chi may improve the balance of people with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease more than stretching or resistance training.
Yoga. In yoga, gentle stretching movements and poses may increase your flexibility and balance. You may modify most poses to fit your physical abilities.
Alexander technique. This technique – which focuses on muscle posture, balance and thinking about how you use muscles – may reduce muscle tension and pain.
Meditation. In meditation, you quietly reflect and focus your mind on an idea or image. Meditation may reduce stress and pain and improve your sense of well-being.
Pet therapy. Having a dog or cat may increase your flexibility and movement and improve your emotional health.
Coping and support
Living with any chronic illness can be difficult, and it’s normal to feel angry, depressed or discouraged at times. Parkinson’s disease, in particular, can be profoundly frustrating, as walking, talking and even eating become more difficult and time-consuming.
Depression is common in people with Parkinson’s disease. But antidepressant medications can help ease the symptoms of depression, so talk with your doctor if you’re feeling persistently sad or hopeless.
Although friends and family can be your best allies, the understanding of people who know what you’re going through can be especially helpful. Support groups aren’t for everyone. However, for many people with Parkinson’s disease and their families, a support group can be a good resource for practical information about Parkinson’s disease.
Also, groups offer a place for you to find people who are going through similar situations and can support you.
To learn about support groups in your community, talk to your doctor, a Parkinson’s disease social worker or a local public health nurse. Or contact the Parkinson’s Foundation or the American Parkinson’s Disease Association.
You and your family may also benefit from talking to a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or social worker trained in working with people who have chronic conditions.