Neurology Associates, P.C.
Parkinson's disease develops gradually, often starting with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. But while tremor may be the most well-known sign of Parkinson's disease, the disorder also commonly causes a slowing or freezing of movement.
Friends and family may notice that your face shows little or no expression and your arms don't swing when you walk. Speech often becomes soft and mumbling. Parkinson's symptoms tend to worsen as the disease progresses.
While there is no cure for Parkinson's disease, many different types of medicines can treat its symptoms. In some cases, your doctor may suggest surgery.
The symptoms of Parkinson's disease vary from person to person. Early signs may be subtle and can go unnoticed for months or years. Symptoms typically begin on one side of the body and usually remain worse on that side. Parkinson's signs and symptoms may include:
Many symptoms of Parkinson's disease result from the lack of a chemical messenger, called dopamine, in the brain. This occurs when the specific brain cells that produce dopamine die or become impaired. But researchers still aren't certain about what sets this chain of events in motion. Some theorize that genetic mutations or environmental toxins may play a role in Parkinson's disease.
Risk factors for Parkinson's disease include:
See your doctor if you have any of the symptoms associated with Parkinson's disease — not only to diagnose the illness but also to rule out other causes for your problem. For instance, tremor is often an early sign of Parkinson's disease, but the most common type of tremor, known as essential tremor, isn't caused by Parkinson's.
Although Parkinson's disease can sometimes be difficult to pin down, getting an accurate diagnosis is the key to starting appropriate treatment that may help delay or manage symptoms for years.
No definitive tests exist for Parkinson's disease, so it can be difficult to diagnose, especially in the early stages. And parkinsonism — the symptoms of Parkinson's disease — can be caused by many other types of problems. Examples include:
A diagnosis of Parkinson's disease is based on your medical history and a neurological examination. As part of your medical history, your doctor will want to know about any medications you take and whether you have a family history of Parkinson's. The neurological examination includes an evaluation of your walking and coordination, as well as some simple hand tasks.
A diagnosis of Parkinson's is most likely if you have:
Parkinson's disease is often accompanied by these additional problems:
Medications for Parkinson's disease also may cause a number of complications, including involuntary twitching or jerking movements of the arms or legs, hallucinations, sleepiness, and a drop in blood pressure when standing up.
Your initial response to Parkinson's treatment can be dramatic. Over time, however, the benefits of drugs frequently diminish or become less consistent, although symptoms can usually still be fairly well controlled. Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, such as physical therapy, a healthy diet and exercise, in addition to medications. In some cases, surgery may be helpful.
Medications can help manage problems with walking, movement and tremor by increasing the brain's supply of dopamine. Taking dopamine itself is not helpful, because it is unable to enter your brain.
Levodopa. The most effective Parkinson's drug is levodopa, which is a natural substance that we all have in our body. When taken by mouth in pill form, it passes into the brain and is converted to dopamine. Levodopa is combined with carbidopa to create the combination drug Sinemet. The carbidopa protects levodopa from premature conversion to dopamine outside the brain; in doing that, it also prevents nausea. In Europe, levodopa is combined with a similar substance, benserazide, and is marketed as Madopar.
As the disease progresses, the benefit from levodopa may become less stable, with a tendency to wax and wane ("wearing off"). This then requires medication adjustments. Levodopa side effects include confusion, delusions and hallucinations, as well as involuntary movements called dyskinesia. These resolve with dose reduction, but sometimes at the expense of reduced parkinsonism control.
Dopamine agonists. Unlike levodopa, these drugs aren't changed into dopamine. Instead, they mimic the effects of dopamine in the brain and cause neurons to react as though dopamine is present. They are not nearly as effective in treating the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. However, they last longer and are often used to smooth the sometimes off-and-on effect of levodopa.
This class includes pill forms of dopamine agonists, pramipexole (Mirapex) and ropinirole (Requip), as well as a patch form, rotigotine (Neupro). Pergolide (Permax) has been withdrawn from the market because of its association with heart valve problems. A short-acting injectable dopamine agonist, apomorphine (Apokyn), is used for quick relief.
The side effects of dopamine agonists include those of carbidopa-levodopa, although they're less likely to cause involuntary movements. However, they are substantially more likely to cause hallucinations, sleepiness or swelling. These medications may also increase your risk of compulsive behaviors such as hypersexuality, compulsive gambling and compulsive overeating. If you are taking these medications and start behaving in a way that's out of character for you, talk to your doctor.
Exercise is important for general health, but especially for maintaining function in Parkinson's disease. Physical therapy may be advisable and can help improve mobility, range of motion and muscle tone. Although specific exercises can't stop the progress of the disease, improving muscle strength can help you feel more confident and capable. A physical therapist can also work with you to improve your gait and balance. A speech therapist or speech pathologist can improve problems with speaking and swallowing.
Deep brain stimulation is the most common surgical procedure to treat Parkinson's disease. It involves implanting an electrode deep within the parts of your brain that control movement. The amount of stimulation delivered by the electrode is controlled by a pacemaker-like device placed under the skin in your upper chest. A wire that travels under your skin connects the device, called a pulse generator, to the electrode.
Deep brain stimulation is most often used for people who have advanced Parkinson's disease who have unstable medication (levodopa) responses. It can stabilize medication fluctuations and reduce or eliminate involuntary movements (dyskinesias). Tremor is especially responsive to this therapy. Deep brain stimulation doesn't help dementia and may make that worse.
Like any other brain surgery, this procedure has risks — such as brain hemorrhage or stroke-like problems. Infection also may occur, requiring parts of the device to be replaced. In addition, the unit's battery beneath the skin of the chest wall must be surgically replaced every few years. Deep brain stimulation isn't beneficial for people who don't respond to carbidopa-levodopa.
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.
Eat a nutritionally balanced diet that contains plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These foods are high in fiber, which is important for helping prevent the constipation that is common in Parkinson's disease.
If you take a fiber supplement, such as psyllium powder, Metamucil or Citrucel, be sure to introduce it gradually and drink plenty of fluids daily. Otherwise, your constipation may become worse. If you find that fiber helps your symptoms, use it on a regular basis for the best results.
Walking with care
Parkinson's disease can disturb your sense of balance, making it difficult to walk with a normal gait. These suggestions may help:
In the later stages of the disease, you may fall more easily. That's because Parkinson's disease affects the balance and coordination centers in the brain. In fact, you may be thrown off balance by just a small push or bump. The following suggestions may help:
Dressing can be the most frustrating of all activities for someone with Parkinson's disease. The loss of fine-motor control makes it hard to button and zip clothes, and even to step into a pair of pants. An occupational therapist can point out techniques that make daily activities easier. These suggestions also may help:
Living with any chronic illness can be difficult, and it's normal to feel angry, depressed or discouraged at times. Parkinson's disease presents special problems because it can cause chemical changes in your brain that make you feel anxious or depressed. And Parkinson's disease can be profoundly frustrating, as walking, talking and even eating become more difficult and time-consuming.
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, but for many people, they can be a good resource for practical information about Parkinson's disease.
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 National Parkinson Foundation or the American Parkinson Disease Association.
People with Parkinson's disease tend to have low levels of coenzyme Q10, and some research has suggested it may be beneficial. However, subsequent studies have not confirmed this benefit. You can buy coenzyme Q10 without a prescription in drugstores and natural food stores. Talk with your doctor before taking this supplement.
Massage therapy can reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation, which can be especially helpful to people experiencing muscle rigidity associated with Parkinson's disease. These services, however, are rarely covered by health insurance.
An ancient form of Chinese exercise, tai chi employs slow, flowing motions that help improve flexibility and balance. Several forms of tai chi are tailored for people of any age or physical condition.
Yoga is another type of exercise that increases flexibility and balance. Most poses can be modified, depending on your physical abilities.
Last updated February 8, 2012.