What is Parkinson's Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder, more specifically a movement disorder, that affects the cells of the brain that control muscle movement. These cells, located deep in a section of the brain called the substantia nigra, produce an important neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is important because it is the chemical messenger used to send signals from the brain to the muscles to complete smooth, coordinated movements. When 80% of these dopamine-producing cells have died, symptoms of Parkinson’s disease appear. The cause of death of these dopamine-producing cells is still unknown.

Who Gets Parkinson's Disease?

It is estimated that approximately 1 million Americans are currently living with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Estimates also show that that there are 60,000 individuals newly diagnosed each year, or one person every nine minutes. Parkinson’s disease affects men and women in equal numbers and shows no preference to ethnicity, race or socioeconomic status. While the average age of onset is age 55, 15% of those diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease are under the age of 50.

What are the Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease?

Primary symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease include: tremor, muscle rigidity, postural instability, and slowness of movement Secondary symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease include: sleep disturbances, depression, reduced arm swing, anxiety, decreased facial expression, changes in speech, small cramped handwriting, changes in swallowing, cognitive changes, loss of ability to smell, and constipation. 

How is Parkinson's Disease Diagnosed?

There is no definitive test to diagnose Parkinson’s disease, making obtaining an accurate diagnosis difficult. A skilled, experienced neurologist can provide a diagnosis based on a thorough neurological examination and clinical observation. The physician may run other tests, such as blood work or a MRI. These are done to rule out other disorders with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s.

How is Parkinson's Disease Treated?

Since there is no known cure for Parkinson’s, physicians and individuals with Parkinson’s are using medications as the primary treatment for the symptoms of the disease. Research is showing that a combination of medications and exercise therapy is the most appropriate way to treat Parkinson’s. With all of the Parkinson’s medications available, there are many approaches that can be used for treating PD. As the disease progresses, the medications become less effective at controlling the symptoms of the disease, making life more challenging. At this point other treatment options might be explored if appropriate. Under the care and guidance of a Movement Disorder Specialist, the inidividual with PD may choose surgical intervention, such as Deep Brain Stimulation, as the next step in treatment.