Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that is characterized by a loss of muscle control, which results in trembling of the body; stiff, slow movements; and impaired balance. According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, it is estimated that as many as 1 million Americans have Parkinson’s disease. Further, more than 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease every year. Worldwide, 7 to 10 million people are living with Parkinson’s disease.

Causes of Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is caused by a lack of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a critical role in the nervous system. Dopamine, which essentially serves as a messenger in the brain to produce the controlled, smooth movements most of us enjoy, is lacking in the brain of those suffering from Parkinson’s disease; the greater the loss of dopamine, the more uncontrolled the symptoms. Further, it is also believed that Parkinson’s may also cause other cells in the brain to deteriorate, as well.

Although it is clear that a lack of dopamine causes the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, why these dopamine cells deteriorate is unclear.  What is clear is that a number of irregular cellular processes are to blame, although stress has also been attributed to cell damage in Parkinson’s disease patients. In other words, it appears as if dopamine loss occurs because of both genetic and environmental factors.

Signs and Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease usually first presents itself as mild tremors or other involuntary motor functions on one side of the body. A number of studies have shown that, at the time symptoms first appear, most Parkinson’s patients have lost about 20 to 40 percent of their dopamine-producing cells. Parkinson’s disease may present itself as a number of major symptoms:

  • Tremors of the heads, arms, feet, legs, and hands that occur mainly while the individual is at rest, but may also be exacerbated when the individual is stressed, tired, or excited
  • Instability or slow reflexes, which may make standing or maintaining balance difficult
  • Shuffling walk and stooped position (called the Parkinson’s gait)
  • Slow movement (called Bradykinesis) and lack of movement of the facial muscles
  • Stiffness or rigidity of the arms, legs and core of the body; loss of fine motor skills may become clear

Other symptoms of Parkinson’s disease that can’t be overlooked include: depression; constipation; anxiety; stress; difficulty swallowing; loss of sense of smell; excessive salivation; increased sweating; erectile dysfunction in men; confusion and memory loss; slower speech and monotone voice; and incontinence.

Diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease

There is no definitive test for Parkinson’s currently available. Because the early stages of Parkinson’s disease may be mistaken for a host of other disorders and conditions, it becomes quite challenging to properly diagnosis it. Most of the time, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease is made by a neurologist who specializes in Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders. A neurologist is often able to make an accurate diagnosis based on a patient’s medical history, neurological exam, and symptoms.

There have been a number of neurological guidelines created to better diagnose Parkinson’s disease, including the Hoehn and Yahr scales and the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale.

Treatment for Parkinson’s Disease

There is currently no treatment available for Parkinson’s disease, but there are a number of therapies that may work to delay the onset of the disease’s major symptoms. All therapies are focused on increasing dopamine in the brain or prolonging the effect of dopamine. It is through early therapies that many patients can delay the onset of motor symptoms.

Although controversial, some patients undergo deep brain stimulation, which involves stimulating areas of the brain that affect movement through implanted electrodes. Other alternative approaches are being developed, as well, including producing dopamine derived through stem cells.

It is important to note, however, that many Parkinson’s patients find that rest, physical, occupational and speech therapies, and exercise are quite beneficial for moderating or controlling symptoms.

Prevention for Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease cannot be prevented, although scientists are currently exploring the effect genetic and environmental factors (illness and trauma) have on the onset and progression of this disease.

Resources for Parkinson’s Disease

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