Parkinson’s disease affects more than one million people in the United States, with nearly 60,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Whether you or a loved one is experiencing unusual symptoms, or there’s been a recent diagnosis, you likely have a few questions about the disease.
Below, we cover everything from the signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease to its risk factors and when it’s time to seek care.
What is Parkinson's disease? It’s a movement disorder.
Parkinson's disease is a progressive brain illness that affects the way you move. In more clinical terms, Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder of the central nervous system.
Normally, there are cells in the brain that produce a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine sends signals to the parts of your brain that control movement. When approximately 60-80% of the dopamine-producing brain cells are damaged, symptoms of Parkinson's disease appear, and you may have trouble moving the way you want.
Parkinson's disease is a chronic illness and it slowly progresses over time. While there is no therapy or medicine that cures Parkinson’s disease, there are good treatment options available that can help you live a full life.
What are the symptoms and signs of Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s disease symptoms start gradually, and often the earliest signs are barely noticeable. The progression of the disease can vary greatly from person to person, so not everyone may experience the same symptoms. Some of the most common signs of Parkinson’s disease can include:
A tremor, which is shaking or trembling, is one of the first signs of Parkinson’s disease many people notice. Tremors usually begin in a limb, often your hand or fingers. For example, you may experience a slight thumb tremor, finger twitching or hand twitching – particularly when your limb is at rest.
Early on, a tremor may be just a light tremble in one limb on one side of the body. As the disease progresses, body tremors will begin to affect both sides of the body.
Stiff muscles and limbs
Parkinson’s disease can prevent your muscles from relaxing. So, muscle stiffness can occur in any part of the body – it can be painful and limit your range of motion. Sometimes early on, this rigidity can be incorrectly connected to arthritis or another orthopedic issue.
Over time, Parkinson’s disease can slow your body movements. This is called bradykinesia and is a common symptom for many movement disorders. This condition can make everyday tasks like standing up from a chair, walking or talking more time consuming or difficult. Over time, you may also experience a loss in your ability to perform automatic movements like blinking or smiling.
Problems with balance or walking
Bradykinesia can also contribute to increasing instability, walking difficulties and changes in gait. An early symptom of this is a decrease in the natural swing of one or both arms when walking. As things progress, the steps you take may become slower and smaller, and you may start shuffling your feet.
Some people with Parkinson’s disease may also experience freezing episodes where it can feel like their feet are stuck in place, which can increase the risk of falling.
Changes in handwriting – specifically, handwriting getting smaller – can be an early sign of Parkinson’s disease. This is often called micrographia.
It’s normal for handwriting to change as you age, and your hands or fingers become more arthritic. But handwriting that gets increasingly smaller and cramped is characteristic of a neurodegenerative disorder like Parkinson’s disease.
Speech and voice changes are another commonly experienced symptom. You may speak more softly or quickly, or your speech can become slurred or hesitant. Your speech may also lose some of its natural inflections, becoming more monotone.
While Parkinson’s disease is defined as a movement disorder, since symptoms stem from changes in the brain, other non-motor issues can also occur, including:
- Cognitive changes such as memory issues, and problems with thinking or finding the right words when talking
- Sleeping problems
- Depression and anxiety
- Unexplained weight loss
What causes Parkinson's disease?
Parkinson’s disease is caused by the breakdown and loss of neurons that produce dopamine – a chemical messenger in your brain that plays a role in several brain functions like memory, attention, feeling pleasure and movement control.
But what causes those neurons to break down or die? There isn’t a singular cause that scientists can pinpoint. Instead, they believe it’s a combination of factors – namely genes and environment – that work together.
Abnormal genes can lead to Parkinson’s disease in some people. However, in most cases the disease is not inherited. Environmental risk factors for Parkinson’s disease can include exposure to certain toxins like herbicides or pesticides, and living in rural areas. The risks differ for each person.
Put simply, there are certain risk factors that may increase your risk for Parkinson’s disease. It’s a very diverse disease – and everyone experiences it differently.
Who’s at the most risk for Parkinson’s disease?
- People age 60 and older – Typically, Parkinson’s disease begins in mid or late life, with the risk increasing as you age. Young adults rarely experience Parkinson’s disease. However, it can happen. For example, actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 29.
- Those who have a close relative with Parkinson’s disease – If you have a sibling, parent or grandparent with the disease, you may have an increased risk of developing it. However, the risks are small – unless you have many relatives with the disease.
- Men are more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than women – In fact, the disease affects 50% more men than women.
- Those who have experienced ongoing exposure to toxins such as herbicides and pesticides – Research shows that this exposure may slightly increase your risk of Parkinson's disease.
How is Parkinson's disease diagnosed?
There’s no single test that can tell whether someone does or doesn’t have Parkinson’s disease. Instead, a neurologist specializing in movement disorders will make a diagnosis based on a patient’s symptoms and results from various diagnostic tests.
There are several health conditions, such as stroke, that share some of the same motor and non-motor symptoms as Parkinson’s disease, so certain diagnostic tests can help rule out other possibilities.
Generally, two or more of the most common motor symptoms (tremors, stiffness, balance problems or slow movements) need to be present for a diagnosis. And depending on your symptoms, some of the diagnostic tests that may be performed include:
- Blood tests
- Brain imaging scans such as a CT and MRI
- A DaTscan, which is a more specialized imaging technique that helps visualize dopamine transporter levels
- Neuropsychological testing, which can include reading, language, attention, memory and personality, as well as other tests to help determine how well your brain is functioning
What to do if you or a loved one might be experiencing Parkinson’s disease symptoms
If you’re concerned about any symptoms you or a loved one is experiencing, start by making an appointment with your primary care doctor or clinician. Or if you already have a neurologist, get in touch and schedule a visit.
Your doctor will listen to your concerns and symptoms, review your health history, and likely perform a clinical exam. From there, they’ll work with you on next steps, whether it’s medication, scheduling additional testing or referring you to a specialist.
If Parkinson’s disease is diagnosed, we’re here to support you and your family. We’ll work with you to create a tailored treatment plan – from recommending exercises for Parkinson’s disease management to support groups, medications and other therapies. Our goal is to help improve quality of life at every stage and help people live well with Parkinson’s disease.
HealthPartners offers neurological care at more than 20 clinic locations across the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin. Our health system is also home to Struthers Parkinson’s Center, which offers nationally recognized care and is just one of 48 designated centers in the world working to advance research and treatment for movement disorders. This specialty center has two Minnesota locations, one in Golden Valley and one in St. Paul.