Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Parkinson’s disease most often develops after age 50. It is one of the most common nervous system disorders of the elderly. Sometimes Parkinson’s disease occurs in younger adults. It affects both men and women.
In some cases, Parkinson’s disease occurs in families. When a young person is affected, it is usually because of a form of the disease that runs in families.
Nerve cells use a brain chemical called dopamine to help control muscle movement. Parkinson’s disease occurs when the nerve cells in the brain that make dopamine are slowly destroyed. Without dopamine, the nerve cells in that part of the brain cannot properly send messages. This leads to the loss of muscle function. The damage gets worse with time. Exactly why these brain cells waste away is unknown.
Parkinson’s in children may occur because the nerves are not as sensitive to dopamine. Parkinson’s is rare in children.
The term “parkinsonism” refers to any condition that involves the types of movement changes seen in Parkinson’s disease. Parkinsonism may be caused by other disorders (such as secondary parkinsonism) or certain medications.
The disorder may affect one or both sides of the body. How much function is lost can vary.
Symptoms may be mild at first. For instance, the patient may have a mild tremor or a slight feeling that one leg or foot is stiff and dragging.
- Automatic movements (such as blinking) slow or stop
- Difficulty swallowing
- Impaired balance and walking
- Lack of expression in the face (mask-like appearance)
- Muscle aches and pains
- Movement problems
- Difficulty starting or continuing movement, such as starting to walk or getting out of a chair
- Loss of small or fine hand movements; writing may become small and difficult to read; eating becomes difficult
- Slowed movements
- Stooped position
- Rigid or stiff muscles, often beginning in the legs
- Shaking, tremors
- Tremors usually occur in the limbs at rest, or when the arm or leg is held out
- Tremors go away during movement
- Over time, tremor can be seen in the head, lips, tongue, and feet
- May be worse when tired, excited, or stressed
- Finger-thumb rubbing (pill-rolling tremor) may be present
- Slowed, quieter speech and monotone voice
Signs and tests
The health care provider may be able to diagnose Parkinson’s disease based on your symptoms and a physical examination. However, the symptoms can be difficult to assess, particularly in the elderly. The signs (tremor, change in muscle tone, problems walking, unsteady posture) become more clear as the illness progresses.
An examination may show:
- Difficulty starting or finishing voluntary movements
- Jerky, stiff movements
- Muscle atrophy
- Parkinson’s tremors
- Variation in heart rate
Reflexes should be normal.
Tests may be needed to rule out other disorders that cause similar symptoms.
There is no known cure for Parkinson’s disease. The goal of treatment is to control symptoms.
Medications control symptoms, mostly by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain. At certain points during the day, the helpful effects of the medication often wears off, and symptoms can return. Your doctor may need to change the:
- Type of medication
- Amount of time between doses
- How the medications are taken
Work closely with your doctors and therapists to adjust the treatment program. Never change or stop taking any medications without talking with your doctor.
Eventually, symptoms such as stooped posture, frozen movements, and speech difficulties may not respond very well to drug treatment.
Medications used to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are:
- Levodopa (L-dopa), Sinemet, levodopa and carbidopa (Atamet)
- Pramipexole (Mirapex), ropinirole (Requip), bromocriptine (Parlodel)
- Selegiline (Eldepryl, Deprenyl), rasagiline (Azilect)
- Amantadine or anticholinergic medications — to reduce early or mild tremors
- Entacapone — to prevent the breakdown of levodopa
Lifestyle changes that may be helpful for Parkinson’s disease:
- Good general nutrition and health
- Exercising, but adjusting the activity level to meet changing energy levels
- Regular rest periods and avoiding stress
- Physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy
- Railings or banisters placed in commonly used areas of the house
- Special eating utensils
- Social workers or other counseling services to help you cope with the disorder and get assistance (such as Meals-on-Wheels)
Less commonly, surgery may be an option for patients with very severe Parkinson’s disease who no longer respond to many medications. These surgeries do not cure Parkinson’s, but may help some patients:
- In deep brain stimulation (DBS), the surgeon implants electrical stimulators in specific areas of the brain to help with movement.
- Another type of surgery destroys brain tissues that cause Parkinson’s symptoms.
Support groups may help you cope with the changes caused by the disease.
Untreated, the disorder will get worse until a person is totally disabled. Parkinson’s may lead to a deterioration of all brain functions, and an early death.
Most people respond to medications. How much the medications relieve symptoms, and for how long can be very different in each person. The side effects of medications may be severe.
- Difficulty performing daily activities
- Difficulty swallowing or eating
- Disability (differs from person to person)
- Injuries from falls
- Pneumonia from breathing in (aspirating) saliva
- Side effects of medications
Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider if:
- You have symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
- Symptoms get worse
- New symptoms occur
Also tell the health care provider about medication side effects, which may include:
- Changes in alertness, behavior or mood
- Delusional behavior
- Involuntary movements
- Loss of mental functions
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe confusion or disorientation
Also call your health care provider if the condition gets worse and home care is no longer possible.