If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, you’re not alone. More than 1 million people in the United States are living with the illness. And every year, nearly 60,000 new cases are diagnosed.

While doctors don’t know exactly what causes Parkinson’s disease, they do know it’s a progressive disease that can be managed with the right treatment plan and the right care team. That’s where neurological movement disorder specialists – who are also called Parkinson’s doctors – play an important role.

What is a movement disorder specialist?

You’ve likely heard of neurologists before. They’re expertly trained medical doctors who specialize in conditions that affect the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves and muscles. But a movement disorder specialist can be any medical professional who works with patients that have neurological conditions that affect movement, like Parkinson’s disease. For instance, physician assistants (PA) and nurse practitioners (NP) can also specialize in working with people who have movement disorders.

What does a neurological movement disorder specialist do for Parkinson’s disease?

A movement disorder specialist has expertise in therapies that can be used to manage Parkinson’s disease at every stage. And because Parkinson’s disease therapies continue to advance, many movement disorder specialists are involved in clinical research.

If there’s an experimental therapy or a newly approved medicine that might benefit you or your loved one, a movement disorder specialist will likely know all about it.

Movement disorder specialists are Parkinson’s experts, so they know symptoms of the disease are complex and varied, and that medications are not the complete answer. They work with a team of experts – including rehabilitation therapists, nurses, social workers and other specialists – to fully address a particular person’s needs.

How do neurologists and movement disorder specialists diagnose Parkinson’s disease?

There’s no single test that can confirm if someone has Parkinson’s disease. Instead, a movement disorder specialist may use several methods to diagnose the illness (and rule out other conditions), including:

  • Listening carefully to the symptoms the person is experiencing, like a slight tremor in their fingers or hands, a change in gait or balance, or speech changes
  • A neurological exam to identify key features of Parkinson’s disease such as resting tremor, muscle rigidity and gait changes
  • Diagnostic tests such as:
    • Blood tests
    • Brain imaging scans, including a CT and MRI
    • A DaTscan, which is a more specialized imaging technique that helps determine dopamine transporter levels
    • Neuropsychological testing, which can include reading, language, attention, memory and personality, as well as other tests to help determine how well a person’s brain is functioning
  • A diagnostic/therapeutic trial to study the effects of Parkinson’s disease medications

Parkinson’s neurologists, PAs and NPs can also diagnose, treat and help manage a range of other movement disorders, including:

  • Ataxia
  • Atypical Parkinsonism
  • Essential tremor
  • Huntington's disease
  • Lewy body disease (LBD)
  • Multiple system atrophy (MSA)
  • Progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP)
  • Tardive dyskinesia (TD)

How do movement disorder specialists work with you to create a personalized treatment plan?

Movement disorder specialists’ training and experience make them ideal doctors to develop a plan for treating and managing symptoms, as well as help you or your loved one live well throughout the course of Parkinson’s disease.

Your movement disorder specialist can:

  • Manage Parkinson’s disease medications and potential side effects
  • Recommend and perform botulinum toxin injections, which can help with symptoms such as drooling or limb dystonia (continuous muscle contractions that can sometimes be painful)
  • Treat and manage non-motor symptoms such as depression, constipation, low blood pressure and sleep disturbances
  • Evaluate you for deep brain stimulation (DBS) or other invasive Parkinson’s therapies, and manage your care after the procedure

But one of the most important aspects of a movement disorder specialist’s role should be coordinating care with other specialists such as:

  • Physical therapists – Because Parkinson’s is a progressive disease that affects movement, activity and exercise are vital for managing symptoms and slowing progression. Physical therapists can help with Parkinson’s by designing an individualized plan with the best Parkinson’s disease exercises to fit your needs.
  • Occupational therapist – Occupational therapy focuses on helping people adapt everyday activities to their current abilities. This helps people with Parkinson’s disease do what they want and need to do for as long as they can – such as learning how to use certain assistive devices, developing self-care routines, preventing falls and much more.
  • Speech therapist – A speech therapist can help you maintain as many communication skills as possible, as well as teach nonverbal communication skills. They can also help with swallowing issues.
  • Psychiatrist or psychologist – Depression and anxiety affect almost half of those with Parkinson’s disease. Mental health professionals can provide supportive counseling, perform certain kinds of cognitive and behavioral therapies, and prescribe medications that can help your mental well-being.
  • Social worker – A social worker can help you or your loved one adjust to the transitions commonly associated with Parkinson’s disease, such as beginning treatment or giving up a job. They can also help with navigating the health care system, education, accessing community services and patient advocacy. Some social workers can also assist with mental health counseling and patient and family support.

Do you have to see a movement disorder specialist for Parkinson’s disease?

There are some general practice neurologists and other clinicians who aren’t movement disorder specialists who work with people with Parkinson’s disease.

However, movement disorder specialists have the unique training and experience to treat and manage all motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, as well as have familiarity with all Parkinson’s medications and treatment options. This makes movement disorder specialists the best choice to handle the nuances of Parkinson’s care at every stage of the disease.

When do Parkinson’s patients usually start working with a movement disorder specialist?

Generally, if you or a loved one is experiencing any unusual symptoms, it’s common to start by making an appointment with a primary care doctor or clinician. Primary care doctors are trained to treat hundreds of conditions and can help connect you with the right specialists and ongoing care.

However, you don’t need a doctor’s referral to see a neurologist or movement disorder specialist. You can make an appointment directly. But it’s important to check with your insurance plan, so you know what’s covered. Sometimes plans require a doctor’s referral to cover certain types of care.

What should you look for in a movement disorder specialist if you have Parkinson’s disease?

Finding the right Parkinson’s disease specialist isn’t much different than searching for any other type of expert. Start by asking around. Primary care doctors, neurologists and Parkinson’s support groups can be good sources for recommendations.

Here are a few more things to look for when choosing a movement disorder specialist:

  • Group or board certification – Certification is a mark of distinction. It shows that your doctor or clinician has not only completed their necessary training, but also gone above and beyond to be certified by their specialty’s certifying board.
  • Part of a multidisciplinary team – Your care and treatment plan should be tailored to you. And that means several specialists will need to work together to make sure you get the right care. Working with a movement disorder specialist who is part of a multidisciplinary team can help streamline services and communication.
  • Access to the latest treatments and specialized programming – Access to the right treatment can make all the difference for a person with Parkinson’s disease. We proudly offer the latest science-backed treatments, as well as the possibility of being involved in experimental treatment trials at Struthers Parkinson’s Center in Golden Valley and HealthPartners Neuroscience Center in St. Paul.