Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that affects movement. The disease targets brain cells called neurons that produce an important chemical known as dopamine, a chemical messenger that transmits signals within the brain. Normally, dopamine operates in a delicate balance with other “neurotransmitters” to help coordinate the millions of nerve and muscle cells involved in movement. Because Parkinson’s patients have a loss of dopamine-producing cells in the brain, the coordination among nerve and muscle cells is disrupted.
Parkinson’s affects about 1 million people in North America. The disease generally progresses slowly, sometimes taking years for symptoms to appear. It usually strikes adults over age 50, although has been diagnosed as early as age 20. About 15 percent of Parkinson’s patients have a family history of the disease. The cause of the disease is unknown.
Because it develops gradually, most people have many years of productive living after being diagnosed.
Some of the first symptoms commonly experienced with Parkinson’s include the following:
- Rigidity — Arms and legs become stiff and hard to move
- Tremors — Rapid shaking of the hands, arms or legs
- Slowed Movements — Difficulty starting or completing movements, called bradykinesia
- Impaired Balance — Lack of balance or difficulty adjusting to sudden changes in position
These symptoms may make it difficult for you to walk, pick up and hold things, eat, write or react quickly to prevent injury if you fall.
Other symptoms include difficulty speaking or swallowing, drooling, stooped posture, inability to make facial expressions, oily skin, cramped handwriting, shortness of breath, constipation, increased sweating, erectile dysfunction, difficulty sleeping, problems urinating, anxiety, depression, and dementia.
Medications have been successful in treating early symptoms of the disease but become less reliable as the disease advances. Other treatments, such as deep brain stimulation, can relieve symptoms but don’t cure the disease.