Parkinson’s Disease: Symptoms

April is Parkinson’s Disease Awareness month and we would like to take the time to bring you information about the disease, treatment options, prevention methods and how to care for seniors who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. 

Parkinson’s disease is a chronic disorder in which the symptoms continue and worsen overtime. About 1 million people in the US suffer from this disorder which affects the motor and non-motor movements of the body. The cause for Parkinson’s is still not known and there is presently no cure for it; however, there are some treatment options such as medication and surgery which can help manage the symptoms relating to this disease.

Parkinson’s leads to the malfunction and death of vital nerve cells in the brain called neurons. These dying neurons produce dopamine, a chemical that sends messages to that part of the brain which controls its movement and coordination. With the progression of Parkinson’s disease, the amount of dopamine produced in the brain reduces and that makes a person unable to control movement normally. Non-motor functions such as sense of smell and sleep regulation are also affected in Parkinson’s due to the presence of Lewy bodies (clumps of protein alpha-synuclein).

Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease

Symptoms typically begin appearing between the ages of 50 and 60. They develop slowly and often go unnoticed by family, friends, and even by the person who has them. Early diagnosis of Parkinson's disease gives a senior the best chance of a longer, healthier life. What signs should one watch out for indicating the onset of Parkinson’s disease?

Motor symptoms

Motor symptoms directly affect the motor system, or the part of the central nervous system which controls movement, typically leading to restricted mobility. The primary motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include the following:

Tremors

Tremors are shaking in the hand, leg and arm when one is awake and sitting or standing still. It gets better when the affected body part is moved. Tremors are usually the first noticeable symptoms in a person with Parkinson’s disease. In the initial stages of the disease, tremors may appear only in one arm or one leg or only on one side of the body. However, as the disease progresses the tremors may spread to both sides of the body. Tremors may intensify with emotional and physical stress but sleep, relaxation and voluntary movement or action reduce or stop the tremors.

Even though tremors are the first sign associated with this disease, not everyone with tremors has Parkinson’s. A non-Parkinson’s tremor is an essential tremor which unlike in Parkinson’s gets better with rest and intensifies when one tries to move the affected body part.

Stiff and aching muscles

Reduced arm swing on one side when walking caused by rigid or stiff muscles is one of the prominent signs of Parkinson’s. Stiffness can also affect the muscles of the legs, face, neck and other parts of the body and may cause the muscles to feel tired and achy.

Slowness of movement

Movements may become slow and limited, especially when one tries to move from a resting position such as getting out of bed in the morning after a night’s sleep.

Problems in balancing

A person suffering from Parkinson’s disease may not feel confident walking due to balance and postural problems. They make take small steps and shuffle with their feet together, bending forward slightly from the waist and having trouble turning around.

Weakness of face and throat muscles

With the progression of this disease, it may get harder to talk and swallow. Speech may also become softer and monotone. People suffering from Parkinson’s may even choke, cough or drool. It is often seen that loss of movement in the muscles of the face cause a fixed, blank facial expression called the Parkinson’s Mask.

Freezing

A sudden brief inability to move which affects walking is called freezing and is one of the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

Small hand writing

Micrographia or shrinkage in handwriting is experienced and it progresses when a person with Parkinson’s writes more.

Non-motor symptoms

Parkinson’s disease may cause other symptoms that are not related to movements however they can be equally disabling. Constipation, sleep problems and depression are some non-motor symptoms of this disease. However, the presence of these symptoms does not necessarily imply Parkinson’s disease. For instance, even though straining your bowels may be an early sign of the disease, it could be caused due to other reasons such not having enough water or fiber in the body or due to some medication. It is important to check with the doctor if diet or medication is not the reason for constipation.