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Parkinson's Disease


Topic Overview

The brain and nerve cells

What is Parkinson's disease?

Parkinson's disease affects the way you move. It happens when there is a problem with certain nerve cells in the brain.

Normally, these nerve cells make an important chemical called dopamine. Dopamine sends signals to the part of your brain that controls movement. It lets your muscles move smoothly and do what you want them to do. When you have Parkinson's, these nerve cells break down. Then you no longer have enough dopamine, and you have trouble moving the way you want to.

Parkinson's is progressive, which means it gets worse over time. But usually this happens slowly, over many years. And there are good treatments that can help you live a full life.

What causes Parkinson's disease?

No one knows for sure what makes these nerve cells break down. But scientists are doing a lot of research to look for the answer. They are studying many possible causes, including aging and poisons in the environment.

Abnormal genes seem to lead to Parkinson's disease in some people. But so far, there is not enough proof to show that it is always inherited.

What are the symptoms?

The four main symptoms of Parkinson's are:

  • Tremor, which means shaking or trembling. Tremor may affect your hands, arms, or legs.
  • Stiff muscles.
  • Slow movement.
  • Problems with balance or walking.

Tremor may be the first symptom you notice. It's one of the most common signs of the disease, although not everyone has it.

More importantly, not everyone with a tremor has Parkinson's disease.

Tremor often starts in just one arm or leg or on only one side of the body. It may be worse when you are awake but not moving the affected arm or leg. It may get better when you move the limb or you are asleep.

In time, Parkinson's affects muscles all through your body, so it can lead to problems like trouble swallowing or constipation.

In the later stages of the disease, a person with Parkinson's may have a fixed or blank expression, trouble speaking, and other problems. Some people also lose mental skills (dementia).

People usually start to have symptoms between the ages of 50 and 60. But sometimes symptoms start earlier.

How is Parkinson's disease diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and your past health and will do a neurological exam. This exam includes questions and tests that show how well your nerves are working. For example, your doctor will watch how you move, check your muscle strength and reflexes, and check your vision.

Your doctor will also ask questions about your mood.

In some cases, your doctor may have you try a medicine. How this medicine works may help your doctor know if you have Parkinson's disease.

There are no lab or blood tests that can help your doctor know whether you have Parkinson's. But you may have tests to help your doctor rule out other diseases that could be causing your symptoms. For example, you might have an MRI to look for signs of a stroke or brain tumor.

How is it treated?

At this time, there is no cure for Parkinson's disease. But there are several types of medicines that can control the symptoms and make the disease easier to live with.

You may not even need treatment if your symptoms are mild. Your doctor may wait to prescribe medicines until your symptoms start to get in the way of your daily life. Your doctor will adjust your medicines as your symptoms get worse. You may need to take several medicines to get the best results.

Levodopa (also called L-dopa) is the best drug for controlling symptoms of Parkinson's. But it can cause problems if you use it for a long time or at a high dose. So doctors sometimes use other medicines to treat people in the early stages of the disease.

The decision to start taking medicine, and which medicine to take, will be different for each person. Your doctor will be able to help you make these choices.

In some cases, a treatment called deep brain stimulation may also be used. For this treatment, a surgeon places wires in your brain. The wires carry tiny electrical signals to the parts of the brain that control movement. These little signals can help those parts of the brain work better.

There are many things you can do at home that can help you stay as independent and healthy as possible. Eat healthy foods. Get the rest you need. Make wise use of your energy. Get some exercise every day. Physical therapy and occupational therapy can also help.

How will Parkinson's disease affect your life?

Finding out that you have a long-term, progressive disease can lead to a wide range of feelings. You may feel angry, afraid, sad, or worried about what lies ahead. It may help to keep a few things in mind:

  • Usually this disease progresses slowly. Some people live for many years with only minor symptoms.
  • Many people are able to keep working for years. As the disease gets worse, you may need to change how you work.
  • It is important to take an active role in your health care. Find a doctor you trust and can work with.
  • Depression is common in people who have Parkinson's. If you feel very sad or hopeless, talk to your doctor or see a counselor.
  • It can make a big difference to know that you're not alone. Ask your doctor about Parkinson's support groups, or look for online groups or message boards.
  • Parkinson's affects more than just the person who has it. It also affects your loved ones. Be sure to include them in your decisions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about Parkinson's disease:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Living with Parkinson's disease:

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