Originally published by Harvard Health.
What Is It?
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a disease of the central nervous system. It causes problems with body motions, including:
- Tremor (shakiness)
- Rigidity (muscle stiffness)
- Slowed body movements
- Unstable posture
- Difficulty walking
PD develops when certain nerve cells (neurons) in the brain die. These are neurons that produce a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine helps relay messages between areas of the brain that control body movement.
When these neurons die, abnormally low levels of dopamine are produced. This makes it difficult to control muscle tension and muscle movement.
PD usually occurs in middle age. It typically begins around age 60. A small number of patients have early onset PD. They are younger than 40 years old when symptoms begin.
Having a parent or sibling diagnosed with the disease at a younger age increases your risk of getting PD. The same is not true if the affected family member was older when diagnosed.
PD usually begins as a slight tremor or stiffness. It occurs in the arm or leg on one side of the body. The tremor is most obvious at rest. It is regular, typically occurring three to six times per second.
The PD tremor:
- Usually worsens under stress
- Improves when the arm or leg is moved voluntarily
- May disappear entirely during sleep
At first, PD may be evident only as a tremor involving the thumb and index finger. It looks as if the person is manipulating a small object.
As the illness worsens, tremors may become more widespread. They eventually affect limbs on both sides of the body. Handwriting may become small, shaky and eventually illegible.
PD often causes stiffness or rigidity in the arms or legs. In addition, there is a slowing of body movements, called bradykinesia.
Rigidity and bradykinesia can be the most disabling aspects of the disease. They can impair the person’s ability to walk. They can make it difficult to perform daily activities. These may include washing, dressing or using utensils.
Problems with unsteady balance and posture may make it hard to sit down in a chair, or to rise from one. Walking is accomplished with small, shuffling steps and a stooped posture.
Bradykinesia can affect the facial muscles. It can decrease spontaneous facial expressions and normal eye blinking.
Other symptoms of PD may include:
- Disturbed sleep
- Memory loss
- Slurred or abnormally soft speech
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
- Impaired bladder control
- Abnormal regulation of body temperature
- Sexual dysfunction
- Cramps, numbness, tingling or pain in the muscles
Your doctor will examine you. He or she will pay extra attention to the neurological examination.
Your doctor will look for symptoms of PD, especially:
- The classic PD tremor
- Slowness of movement
- Gait problems
There is no specific diagnostic procedure or laboratory test to establish a Parkinson’s diagnosis. Doctors diagnose the disease based on the symptoms and physical and neurological exams.
If a patient’s symptoms improve after taking PD medication, the diagnosis is probably correct.
PD is a chronic, often progressive illness.
Doctors are not sure what causes PD. There is no known way to prevent it.
There is no cure for PD. But its symptoms can be treated with several different types of medication.
When symptoms are not overly troublesome, medication may not be necessary. Early treatment may even increase the chance of developing side effects and other complications later.
Treatment usually is started when:
- Symptoms interfere with:
- Management of household affairs
- Other activities
- Difficulty with walking and balance becomes significant
Medications used to treat PD either:
- Boost the levels of dopamine in the brain
- Mimic the effects of dopamine
The most commonly used medication for PD is levodopa. Levodopa is converted to dopamine in the brain.
Levodopa usually is prescribed in combination with another drug called carbidopa. The second drug increases the amount of active drug that reaches the brain. It also limits side effects. The two drugs, levodopa and carbidopa, are combined in one pill (Sinemet).
Nearly all patients with PD improve after they start taking levodopa. However, long-term use eventually causes side effects and complications. Doctors often need to adjust the frequency and dose of levodopa so the person can continue taking it.
Several medications can be used either alone or in combination with levodopa to treat symptoms.
For mild symptoms in early PD, amantadine (Symmetrel) helps release stored dopamine in the brain.
Anticholinergic medications also help relieve mild symptoms in early PD. There are several choices, including trihexyphenidyl (Artane, Trihexane, Trihexy), benztropine (Cogentin), biperiden (Akineton), or procyclidine (Kemadrin). Anticholinergic drugs are particularly effective against tremor. But they can cause side effects. These include confusion and hallucinations, especially in elderly patients.
Another treatment option for early PD is a monoamine oxidase-B (MAO-B) inhibitor, such as selegiline (Carbex, Eldepryl) or rasagiline (Azilect). MAO-B inhibitors boost the effectiveness of the dopamine that the brain is still making. They may delay the need for stronger drugs. Eventually, though, people taking an MAO-B inhibitor will need a levodopa-containing drug.
Dopamine agonists mimic the effects of dopamine. Some of the commonly used dopamine agonists are bromocriptine (Parlodel), pramipexole (Mirapex) and ropinirole (Requip)—may be used alone to delay the need for levodopa. Or they may be used with levodopa to increase its effectiveness. This may reduce the amount of levodopa needed. Older patients can be especially sensitive to these drugs. They can cause confusion, hallucinations and weakness due to low blood pressure.
Drugs called COMT inhibitors also can be used in combination with levodopa. COMT inhibitors, such as entacapone (Comtan) and tolcapone (Tasmar), prolong the action of dopamine in the brain. They also increase the effectiveness of levodopa. When a COMT inhibitor is added, the doctor usually lowers the levodopa dose.
Depression is a fairly common problem among people with PD. Many patients can benefit from treatment with antidepressant medications.
Regular exercise and a balanced diet also may help to improve a patient’s overall sense of well-being and body control.
Surgery is considered when patients stop responding well enough to medications. Surgical options include:
- Deep brain stimulation. The electrodes are placed after brain mapping.
- Precise destruction of targeted areas in the brain. Destroyed areas are responsible for the most troubling symptoms.
When To Call A Professional
Call your doctor if you develop any of the symptoms of PD.
Also call if you:
- Notice a persistent tremor or stiffness anywhere in your body
- Have trouble walking
- Have trouble rising from a chair
- Have any symptoms of depression
There is no cure for PD. But a well-constructed treatment plan allows many patients to lead active lives.
National Parkinson Foundation
1501 N.W. 9th Ave./Bob Hope Road
Miami, Florida 33136-1494
The American Parkinson Disease Association
1250 Hylan Blvd.
Staten Island, NY 10305
Parkinson’s Disease Foundation
710 W. 168th St.
New York, NY 10032-9982