Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms

The four primary symptoms of PD are:

Tremor

The tremor associated with PD has a characteristic appearance.  Typically, the tremor takes the form of a rhythmic back-and-forth motion at a rate of 4-6 beats per second.  It may involve the thumb and forefinger and appear as a "pill rolling" tremor.  Tremor often begins in a hand, although sometimes a foot or the jaw is affected first.  It is most obvious when the hand is at rest or when a person is under stress.  Tremor usually disappears during sleep or improves with intentional movement.  It is usually the first symptom that causes people to seek medical attention.

Rigidity

Rigidity, or a resistance to movement, affects most people with PD.  The muscles remain constantly tense and contracted so that the person aches or feels stiff.  The rigidity becomes obvious when another person tries to move the individual's arm, which will move only in ratchet-like or short, jerky movements known as "cogwheel" rigidity.

Bradykinesia

This slowing down of spontaneous and automatic movement is particularly frustrating because it may make simple tasks difficult.  The person cannot rapidly perform routine movements.  Activities once performed quickly and easily—such as washing or dressing—may take much longer.  There is often a decrease in facial expressions.

Postural instability

Postural instability, or impaired balance, causes affected individuals to fall easily.

Other Hallmarks of PD

PD does not affect everyone the same way, and the rate of progression and the particular symptoms differ among individuals. 

PD symptoms typically begin on one side of the body.   However, the disease eventually affects both sides.   Even after the disease involves both sides of the body, the symptoms are often less severe on one side than on the other. 

Friends or family members may be the first to notice changes in someone with early PD.  They may see that the person's face lacks expression and animation (known as "masked face") or that the person moves more slowly.

Early symptoms of PD may be subtle and occur gradually.  Affected people may feel mild tremors or have difficulty getting out of a chair.  Activities may take longer to complete than in the past and individuals may note some stiffness in addition to slowness.  They may notice that they speak too softly or that their handwriting is slow and looks cramped or small.  This very early period may last a long time before the more classical and obvious motor (movement) symptoms appear.

As the disease progresses, the symptoms of Parkinson's disease may begin to interfere with daily activities.  Affected individuals may not be able to hold utensils steady or they may find that the shaking makes reading a newspaper difficult.  People with PD often develop a so-called parkinsonian gait that includes a tendency to lean forward, taking small quick steps as if hurrying (called festination), and reduced swinging in one or both arms.  They may have trouble initiating movement (start hesitation), and they may stop suddenly as they walk (freezing).

A number of other symptoms may accompany PD, and some can be treated with medication or physical therapy:

  • Depression.  This common disorder may appear early in the course of the disease, even before other symptoms are noticed.  Some people lose their motivation and become dependent on family members.  Fortunately, depression typically can be treated successfully with antidepressant medications such as amytriptyline or fluoxetine.

  • Emotional changes.  Some people with PD become fearful and insecure, while others may become irritable or uncharacteristically pessimistic.

  • Difficulty with swallowing and chewing.  Muscles used in swallowing may work less efficiently in later stages of the disease.  Food and saliva may collect in the mouth and back of the throat, which can result in choking or drooling.  These problems may also make it difficult to get adequate nutrition.   Speech-language therapists, occupational therapists (who help people learn new ways to perform activities of daily living), and dieticians can often help with these problems.

  • Speech changes.  About half of all individuals with PD have speech difficulties that may be characterized as speaking too softly or in a monotone.  Some may hesitate before speaking, slur, or speak too fast.  A speech therapist may be able to help these individuals reduce some of these problems.

  • Urinary problems or constipation.  In some people with PD, bladder and bowel problems can occur due to the improper functioning of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating smooth muscle activity.  Medications can effectively treat some of these symptoms.

  • Skin problems.  In PD, the skin on the face may become oily, particularly on the forehead and at the sides of the nose.  The scalp may become oily too, resulting in dandruff. In other cases, the skin can become very dry.  Standard treatments for skin problems can help.

  • Sleep problems.  Sleep problems are common in PD and include difficulty staying asleep at night, restless sleep, nightmares and emotional dreams, and drowsiness or sudden sleep onset during the day.   Another common problem is “REM behavior disorder,” in which people act out their dreams, potentially resulting in injury to themselves or their bed partners.  The medications used to treat PD may contribute to some of these sleep issues.  Many of these problems respond to specific therapies.

  • Dementia or other cognitive problems.  Some people with PD may develop memory problems and slow thinking.  Cognitive problems become more severe in late stages of PD, and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease dementia (PDD) may be given.  Memory, social judgment, language, reasoning, or other mental skills may be affected.   There is currently no way to halt PD dementia, but drugs such as rivastigmine, donepezil, or memantine may help The medications used to treat the motor symptoms of PD may cause confusion and hallucinations.

  • Orthostatic hypotension.  Orthostatic hypotension is a sudden drop in blood pressure when a person stands up from a lying-down or seated position.  This may cause dizziness, lightheadedness, and, in extreme cases, loss of balance or fainting.  Studies have suggested that, in PD, this problem results from a loss of nerve endings in the sympathetic nervous system that controls heart rate, blood pressure, and other automatic functions in the body.  The medications used to treat PD may also contribute to this symptom.  Orthostatic hypotension may improve by increasing salt intake.  Physicians treating the disorder may also reduce anti-hypertension drug dosage or by prescribing medications such as fludrocortisone.

  • Muscle cramps and dystonia.  The rigidity and lack of normal movement associated with PD often causes muscle cramps, especially in the legs and toes.   Massage, stretching, and applying heat may help with these cramps.  PD can also be associated with dystonia—sustained muscle contractions that cause forced or twisted positions.  Dystonia in PD is often caused by fluctuations in the body's level of dopamine.  Management strategies may involve adjusting medications.

  • Pain. Many people with PD develop aching muscles and joints because of the rigidity and abnormal postures often associated with the disease.   Treatment with levodopa and other dopaminergic drugs often alleviates these pains to some extent.   Certain exercises may help.

  • Fatigue and loss of energy.  Many people with PD often have fatigue, especially late in the day.  Fatigue may be associated with depression or sleep disorders, but it may also result from muscle stress or from overdoing activity when the person feels well.  Fatigue may also result from akinesia—trouble initiating or carrying out movement.  Exercise, good sleep habits, staying mentally active, and not forcing too many activities in a short time may help to alleviate fatigue.

  • Sexual dysfunction.  Because of its effects on nerve signals from the brain, PD may cause sexual dysfunction.  PD-related depression or use of certain medications may also cause decreased sex drive and other problems.  People should discuss these issues with their physician as they may be treatable.

Hallucinations, delusions, and other psychotic symptoms can be caused by the drugs prescribed for PD.  Reducing PD medications dosages or changing medications may be necessary if hallucinations occur.  If such measures are not effective, doctors sometimes prescribe drugs called atypical antipsychotics, which include clozapine and quetiapine.  The typical antipsychotic drugs, which include haloperidol, worsen the motor symptoms of PD and should not be used.


Reference: National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke

Last updated: May 4, 2017

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