You’re likely visiting this website because you or someone you love is living with Parkinson’s disease.
A Parkinson’s diagnosis can cause fear and uncertainty, but the good news is that there are ways to manage PD symptoms and live a fulfilling life. Remember, you aren’t alone. There’s a community here to support you. This page provides an overview of Parkinson’s to help you get started.
What is Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s is a progressive, neurodegenerative disorder. In other words, Parkinson’s is a lifelong condition that affects the brain and symptoms will get worse over time.
Parkinson’s happens when cells in the brain that produce dopamine stop working or die. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical that sends messages between nerve cells or between nerve cells and muscle cells to help the body function. Dopamine plays many roles in the body and affects both physical and mental function.
The cardinal symptoms of Parkinson’s are resting tremor, rigidity, slowness of movement (also called bradykinesia) and feeling unsteady and having difficulties with balance (also called postural instability). Because these symptoms are related to movement they are called “motor symptoms” and Parkinson’s is classified as a “movement disorder.”
However, we now know that Parkinson’s also causes “non-motor symptoms.” These symptoms include constipation and other gastrointestinal issues, urinary problems, mood changes, sleep disturbances, memory and thinking (cognitive) deficits, sexual problems, excessive sweating, vision problems, and loss of smell or taste. Non-motor symptoms may appear many years before the motor symptoms that eventually lead to a diagnosis.
The symptoms of Parkinson’s are unique to each individual. If you’re living with Parkinson’s it’s important to know the range of symptoms so that you can recognize them and work with your doctor to determine the best treatment plan.
For a detailed list of symptoms, visit the Parkinson’s Foundation’s website at parkinson.org/understanding-parkinsons.
What causes Parkinson’s?
Both genetic and environmental factors play a role in developing Parkinson’s. That’s why you probably won’t get a clear answer if you ask your doctor what caused your diagnosis. Researchers have identified genes that are associated with Parkinson’s but the percentage of cases that can be attributed to a single genetic mutation is low. On the other end of the spectrum, environmental causes, such as pesticide exposure, have also been associated with an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s. A genetic mutation or environmental exposure may increase your risk of Parkinson’s but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the disease.
For a more detailed discussion of the causes of Parkinson’s, visit The Michael J. Fox Foundation’s web pages devoted to the topic at michaeljfox.org/causes.
How is Parkinson’s diagnosed?
There is currently no diagnostic tool to definitively diagnose Parkinson’s disease. Instead your doctor will look for physical clues – the cardinal symptoms of Parkinson’s – during a neurological exam. A Parkinson’s diagnosis is based on a person having at least two of the cardinal symptoms of the disease. Slowness of movement must be present for a person to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s along with one or more of the other cardinal symptoms.
Some people have a predominant resting tremor at the time of diagnosis. Other people may not have a tremor but still receive a Parkinson’s diagnosis based on symptoms of slowness, rigidity and other movement problems that are characteristic of PD. Postural instability may also be present at the time of diagnosis but this symptom is usually associated with later stages of the disease.
A family physician or internist may make the initial Parkinson’s diagnosis. However, this should be followed up with a referral to a neurologist or movement disorders specialist. A movement disorders specialist is a neurologist with special training in Parkinson’s and other movement disorders. If you’ve been diagnosed with Parkinson’s but have not seen a movement disorders specialist, you should ask your doctor for a referral.
Sometimes symptoms that look like Parkinson’s may be caused by medications or another similar disorder. In that case, a neurologist or movement disorders specialist may order a brain imaging test called a DaTscan to help confirm a Parkinson’s diagnosis. However, most people do not need a DaTscan to confirm a Parkinson’s diagnosis. The American Parkinson’s Disease Association (APDA) website has a detailed discussion that can help you understand the uses and limitations of DaTscan.
How is Parkinson’s treated?
There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. However, there are treatments to help manage the symptoms and improve quality of life.
One of the best treatments for Parkinson’s is exercise. Physical activity can help manage symptoms and slow cognitive decline. You can learn more about exercise for Parkinson’s on our website. A healthy diet and lifestyle, and connection to a supportive community are also vital for a fulfilling life with Parkinson’s.
Medications and surgical options can also help manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s. But there is no treatment that can slow, stop, or reverse the underlying disease.
Motor symptoms can be treated with a variety of medications. Most of these medications work by increasing or mimicking dopamine in the brain. These medications come in different forms, such as pills, patches, or infusions. They may also be combined with other treatments that can help extend how long the medications work and lessen potential side effects.
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a surgical treatment for Parkinson’s. Thin metal wires are placed in the brain during DBS to send electrical pulses that help control some motor symptoms.
Treatments for motor symptoms may also help with some non-motor symptoms. There are also treatment options specific for a non-motor symptom. For example, depression is common in Parkinson’s and it can be treated with counseling and when appropriate, anti-depressant medications.
Other therapies include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech language therapy and behavioral therapy to help improve physical and emotional symptoms associated with Parkinson’s.
A movement disorders specialist can help with medical treatments and referrals to healthcare providers to manage both motor and non-motor symptoms. It’s important to keep track of the symptoms you’re experiencing so that you can talk with your doctor to determine the best treatment plan for you.