Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is a chronic, degenerative neurological disorder that affects one in 100 people over the age of 60, the average age of disease onset. An estimated 5 to 10 percent of patients experience onset by age 40, with a subset of those afflicted before age 30. While the estimated number of people living with the disease varies, recent research indicates that at least one million people in the United States, and six million worldwide, suffer from Parkinson’s disease.

First identified by English doctor James Parkinson in 1817, Parkinson’s disease is a disorder in which certain cells in a region of the brain, called the substantia nigra, begin to die. These cells produce a chemical called dopamine that is responsible for transmitting signals within the brain that coordinate movement. When these cells die, neurons in the brain fire erratically, leaving patients less able to direct or control their movements.

Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease vary by individual, but some of the most
common are:

Tremors – In the early stages of the disease, about 70 percent of people experience a slight tremor in the hand or foot on one side of the body, or less commonly in the jaw or face. This symptom usually appears when the muscles are relaxed. Many times the tremor stops when the patient uses the body part affected by the tremor. A tremor usually starts on one side of the body. As the disease progresses, it can spread to the other side of the body.

Rigidity – Rigidity or increased muscle tone means stiffness or inflexibility of the muscles. Normally, muscles contract when they move, and then relax when they are at rest. In rigidity, the muscle tone of an affected limb is stiff. Rigidity can result in a decreased range of motion. Some patients experience pain or muscle cramps with this symptom.

Bradykinesia – Patients with bradykinesia experience a slowing of voluntary movement. In addition to slow movements, a person with bradykinesia will likely also have incompleteness of movement, difficulty in initiating movements, and sudden interruptions of ongoing movement. Patients may begin to walk with short, shuffling steps. If a patient has problems walking and also experiences loss of balance (another common symptom), he or she will be at increased risk of falling

The list of secondary symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is extensive. Some patients experience one or more of these symptoms:

  • Speech changes
  • Loss of facial expression
  • Micrographia (small, cramped handwriting)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Drooling
  • Pain
  • Dementia or confusion
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Constipation
  • Skin problems
  • Depression
  • Fear or anxiety
  • Memory difficulties and slowed thinking
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Urinary problems
  • Fatigue and aching
  • Loss of energy

Although the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are distressing, Parkinson’s disease experts at UCNI can provide a number of treatment options that can help patients and their families cope with the disorder.