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Parkinson's Disease

About Parkinson's Disease

In this section, you or a loved one can find out more about medical treatments and practical information about Parkinson's disease. Read on to find answers to some of your questions as well as links to other information. Being informed is an important first step toward becoming an active decision-maker in your care plan. 

What Is Parkinson's Disease?

Our ability to move is controlled by nerve cells in the brain. The nerve cells communicate with each other and to the rest of the body using chemicals called neurotransmitters. In healthy people, these messages are transmitted well but in people with Parkinson's the messages are disrupted.

One of the neurotransmitters involved in the control of movement is called dopamine. In people with Parkinson's disease, the brain cells that make dopamine are damaged and dopamine production is reduced. As the level of dopamine decreases, slowness of movement and stiffness appear. Tremor is often associated with the disease and can also occur early in the disease course. Parkinson's symptoms usually begin on one side of the body but eventually affect the whole body as the disease progresses. Abnormal changes in neurotransmitters other than dopamine are seen in Parkinson's disease and may be responsible for some of the nonmotor symptoms that are linked to the disease. 

What Causes Parkinson's Disease?

The cause of Parkinson's disease is unknown; however, both genetic and environmental factors may play a role. Some people are more likely to develop Parkinson's disease.

Factors that may increase risk include:

  • Age 60 and older
  • Having a close relative with the disease
  • Men are more likely to develop Parkinson's disease
  • Exposure to toxins such as pesticides
What Are the Effects of Parkinson's Disease?

Initially, the signs and symptoms of Parkinson's disease may be mild and even go unnoticed.

Motor symptoms and the rate they progress can vary substantially from person to person. Certain motor symptoms are often seen in patients with Parkinson's disease and are referred to as cardinal symptoms. These include tremor when at rest, rigidity, gait and posture problems and slow movement.

Nonmotor symptoms can affect people with Parkinson's at any stage of the disease. Different patients may experience different symptoms; examples of nonmotor symptoms include pain and depression.

Parkinson's disease is chronic and progressive but is not considered to be life-threatening. The way that it progresses varies between patients.

How Is the Body Affected?

The following are motor and nonmotor symptoms that may be experienced by people with Parkinson's disease.

Motor symptoms:

  • Resting tremor – shaking of a hand, arm or leg while at rest.
  • Stiffness in muscles and joints (rigidity) – can limit movement and cause pain
  • Slowness of movement – called bradykinesia.  With time, simple tasks can become difficult and time-consuming, steps shorten, and feet may drag
  • Problems with posture –  may become stooped.
  • Problems with balance – may have trouble standing up, maintaining balance and walking
  • Small handwriting
  • Reduced facial expressions
  • Reduced eye blink
  • Softening of the voice
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Freezing – temporary and involuntary inability to move

Nonmotor symptoms:

  • Problems related to the sense of smell
  • Pain
  • Mood changes – such as depression
  • Sleep problems
  • Gastrointestinal troubles such as constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Decrease in blood pressure when standing – also called orthostatic hypotension
  • Sexual and urinary problems
  • Changes in the ability to think – such as dementia
Lifestyle Options

For most people, regardless of having a chronic disease or not, exercise, healthy eatingand good sleep habits are recommended. A healthy lifestyle generally increases quality of life. Before making any lifestyle changes, talk to your doctor.

People with Parkinson's disease who exercise tend to do better than those who don't exercise. Exercise can improve your quality of life by increasing your level of fitness, strength, flexibility and balance. It may also reduce depression and stress.

Make sure to discuss any plans for new activities with your doctor. If you experience shortness of breath or severe pain while exercising, be sure to seek medical attention.

Fun factor

Choose exercises and physical activities you enjoy. This will help you stay with your program and experience positive feelings.

Elements of exercise

A good exercise program includes different types of exercise such as:

  • Aerobic fitness – working your heart and lungs – can have a positive effect on stiffness, slowness, mood and quality of life
  • Strength training, such as lifting free weights, can improve your strength so you can perform everyday activities such as getting up from a chair
  • Flexibility – stretching exercises to help you keep a good range of movement
  • Balance exercises – improving your balance can help decrease your risk of falling
  • Think about your posture – sit and stand tall with your head aligned above your shoulders

Here are some activities you may want to consider; however, this is not a complete list. Most activities that keep you moving are options. Make sure to discuss any plans for new activities with your doctor.

  • Brisk walking
  • Golf
  • Racquet sports
  • Gardening
  • Dancing
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Yoga or chair yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Pilates
For most people, healthy eating means having a balanced diet that includes lots of fruits,  vegetables and whole grains plus drinking water and other fluids. For people with Parkinson's disease, good nutrition can help you attain and maintain a healthy weight and energy level.

Anyone can fall. However, people with Parkinson's disease are at a higher risk of falling because of some of the symptoms of the disease. Falls can lead to accidents and hospitalization. Knowing what you can do to prevent falls can help reduce your risk of falling and build your confidence.

Here are some things you can do to help prevent falls:

  • Make repairs to any unsafe areas of your home (for example, broken handrails on a staircase and worn or broken steps on walkways)
  • When you walk, don't let your center of gravity shift forward over your feet

Ask those closest to you to learn about your condition. This will help them understand your symptoms better and how you feel about them. It may give them new ideas about how to make things easier for you in day-to-day life, and the awareness alone will make you all more comfortable dealing with Parkinson's. Mutual understanding often arises from education – friends and relatives can read this or other websites, look up reliable sources of information in libraries, or go with you to some of your appointments.

Medical Treatments

The main goal of medical treatment for Parkinson's disease is to reduce the effect of symptoms on your daily life. Medication can have a positive effect on the disease, but it may also have side effects. It's important to balance the therapeutic effect of a medication with its side effects. Timing of when medications are taken can be a key element in maintaining this balance.

Many types of medications are used to treat Parkinson's disease. All of these treatment options must be validated and discussed with your doctor.

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