Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder that affects the nervous system and the parts of the body controlled by the nerves. Symptoms start slowly. The first symptom may be a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. Tremors are common, but the disorder may also cause 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 health care provider 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 on one side of the body and usually remain worse on that side, even after symptoms begin to affect the limbs on both sides.
Parkinson's signs and symptoms may include:
- Tremor. A tremor, or rhythmic shaking, usually begins in a limb, often your hand or fingers. You may rub your thumb and forefinger back and forth. This is known as a pill-rolling tremor. Your hand may tremble when it's at rest. The shaking may decrease when you are performing tasks.
- Slowed movement (bradykinesia). Over time, Parkinson's disease may slow your movement, making simple tasks difficult and time-consuming. Your steps may become shorter when you walk. It may be difficult to get out of a chair. You may drag or shuffle 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 fall or 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 have the usual speech patterns.
- Writing changes. It may become hard to write, and your writing may appear small.
When to see a doctor
See your health care provider 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 atypical brain activity, leading to impaired movement and other symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
The cause of Parkinson's disease is unknown, but several factors appear to play a role, including:
Genes. Researchers have identified specific genetic changes 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 small.
Researchers have also noted that many changes occur in the brains of people with Parkinson's disease, although it's 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. These are called Lewy bodies, and researchers believe these Lewy bodies hold an important clue to the cause of Parkinson's disease.
- Alpha-synuclein 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. If a young person does have Parkinson's disease, genetic counseling might be helpful in making family planning decisions. Work, social situations and medication side effects are also different from those of an older person with Parkinson's disease and require special considerations.
- 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 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 usually helped by 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. Health care providers may give you medication 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 the 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 improve your sleep.
- Bladder problems. Parkinson's disease may cause bladder problems, including being unable to control urine or having difficulty in 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 their 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, there are no proven ways to prevent the disease.
Some research has shown that regular aerobic exercise might reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease.
Some other research has shown that people who consume caffeine — which is found in coffee, tea and cola — get Parkinson's disease less often than those who don't drink it. Green tea is also related to a reduced risk of developing Parkinson's disease. However, it is still not known whether caffeine protects against getting Parkinson's or is related in some other way. Currently there is not enough evidence to suggest that drinking caffeinated beverages protects against Parkinson's.
There isn't a specific test to diagnose Parkinson's disease. A 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 neurological examination that ultimately determine the correct diagnosis. Most people do not require a DAT scan.
Your health care provider may order lab tests, such as blood tests, to rule out other conditions that may be causing your symptoms.
Imaging tests — such as an MRI, ultrasound of the brain and PET scans — also may 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 health care provider 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. Health care providers 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 the symptoms, often dramatically. In some more advanced cases, surgery may be advised.
Your health care provider may also recommend lifestyle changes, especially ongoing aerobic exercise. In some cases, physical therapy that focuses on balance and stretching is important. A speech-language pathologist may help improve 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 the 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 well.
Medications your health care provider may prescribe include:
Carbidopa-levodopa. (Rytary, Sinemet, Duopa, others), 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 when you stand (orthostatic hypotension).
After years, as your disease progresses, the benefit from levodopa may lessen, with a tendency to wax and wane ("wearing off").
Also, you may experience involuntary movements (dyskinesia) after taking higher doses of levodopa. Your health care provider may lessen your dose or adjust the times of your doses to control these effects.
Unless told otherwise by your health care provider, carbidopa-levodopa is best taken on an empty stomach if you have advanced Parkinson's disease.
- Inhaled carbidopa-levodopa. Inbrija is a brand-name drug delivering carbidopa-levodopa in an inhaled form. It may be helpful in managing symptoms that arise when oral medications suddenly stop working during the day.
Carbidopa-levodopa infusion. Duopa is a brand-name medication combining 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.
Dopamine agonists aren't as effective as levodopa in treating symptoms. However, they last longer and may be used with levodopa to smooth the sometimes off-and-on effect of levodopa.
Dopamine agonists include pramipexole (Mirapex ER), 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 like the side effects of carbidopa-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 health care provider.
MAO B inhibitors. These medications include selegiline (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. Selegiline given with levodopa may help prevent wearing-off.
Side effects of MAO B inhibitors may include headaches, 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 health care provider before taking any additional medications with an MAO B inhibitor.
Catechol O-methyltransferase (COMT) inhibitors. Entacapone (Comtan) and opicapone (Ongentys) are the primary medications 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, nausea or vomiting.
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. Health care providers may prescribe amantadine (Gocovri) 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.
- Adenosine receptor antagonists (A2A receptor antagonist). These drugs target areas in the brain that regulate the response to dopamine and allow more dopamine to be released. Istradefylline (Nourianz) is one of the A2A antagonist drugs.
- Nuplazid (Pimavanserin). This drug is used to treat hallucinations and delusions that can occur with Parkinson's disease. Experts aren't sure how it works.
Deep brain stimulation. In deep brain stimulation (DBS), surgeons implant electrodes into a specific part of the 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 health care provider may adjust your settings as necessary to treat your condition. Surgery involves risks, including infections, strokes or brain hemorrhage. Some people experience problems with the DBS system or have complications due to stimulation. 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 movements.
DBS is effective in controlling changing 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 a tremor. A tremor may be controlled by DBS even if the tremor isn't very responsive to levodopa.
Although DBS may provide sustained benefit for Parkinson's symptoms, it doesn't keep Parkinson's disease from progressing.
MRI-guided focused ultrasound (MRgFUS) is a minimally invasive treatment that has helped some people with Parkinson's disease manage tremors. Ultrasound is guided by an MRI to the area in the brain where the tremors start. The ultrasound waves are at a very high temperature and burn areas that are contributing to the tremors.
Lifestyle and home remedies
You'll need to work closely with your health care provider to find a Parkinson's treatment plan that offers you the greatest relief from symptoms with the fewest side effects. Certain medicines can make your symptoms worse, so please discuss any drugs you currently take with your health care provider.
Certain lifestyle changes may also help make living with Parkinson's disease easier.
While no food or combination of foods 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 plenty 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 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 health care provider may suggest that 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 your usual gait. Exercise may 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.
Lifestyle and home remedies
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.
If you are having trouble talking, a speech therapist may help. Many patients with Parkinson's disease have speech difficulties such as a slow, weak voice, trouble with consonants, slurred speech, a low voice that has a monotone with little expression, and inappropriate silences. A speech therapist may be able to help with these problems.
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 help prevent falls. Several forms of tai chi are tailored for people of any age or physical condition.
A study showed that tai chi may improve the balance of people with mild to moderate Parkinson's disease more than stretching and 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.
- Relaxation techniques. These practices help lower your blood pressure, reduce your heart rate and improve muscle tone.
Coping and support
Living with any chronic illness can be difficult, and it's not uncommon to feel angry, depressed or discouraged at times. Parkinson's disease 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.
Trying to maintain some of your usual activities may be helpful. You aim to do as many things as possible that you could do before the onset of Parkinson's disease. Focus on the present and try to maintain a positive attitude.
To learn about support groups in your community, talk to your health care provider, a Parkinson's disease social worker or a local public health nurse. Or contact the Parkinson's Foundation or the American Parkinson Disease Association.
You and your family may also benefit from talking to a mental health provider, such as a psychologist or social worker trained in working with people who have chronic conditions.
Preparing for an appointment
You're likely to first see your primary care doctor. However, you may then be referred to a doctor trained in nervous system disorders (neurologist).
Because there's often a lot to discuss, it's a good idea to prepare for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
- Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Write down key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins and supplements that you're taking.
- Ask a family member or friend to come with you, if possible. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the information provided to you during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
- Write down questions to ask your health care provider.
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions ahead of time will help you make the most of your time together. For Parkinson's disease, some basic questions to ask include:
- What's the most likely cause of my symptoms?
- Are there other possible causes?
- What kinds of tests do I need? Do these tests require any special preparation?
- How does Parkinson's disease usually progress?
- Will I eventually need long-term care?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend for me?
- What types of side effects can I expect from treatment?
- If the treatment doesn't work or stops working, do I have additional options?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage these conditions together?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take home with me? What websites do you recommend?
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your provider, don't hesitate to ask questions that occur to you during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may reserve time to go over any points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor may ask:
- When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
- Do you have symptoms all the time or do they come and go?
- Does anything seem to improve your symptoms?
- Does anything seem to make your symptoms worse?