Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder that affects a person's ability to move. It is often referred to as a motor system disorder. When a person has Parkinson's, some cells within the brain, known as neurons, begin to malfunction and eventually start to die off. Healthy neurons produce dopamine, which helps control the body's movements. As neurons fail, that affects how the body moves.
Parkinson's disease primarily develops in adults 50 or older. The exact cause of the disease is not known. Though there is no cure for Parkinson's, there are treatments that can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.
The signs of Parkinson's disease are four unique symptoms: impaired balance and coordination, slow movements, stiffness in the torso, arms or legs and trembling in the hands, legs, arms or face. There is no specific test for Parkinson's disease, so doctors will look for these symptoms when attempting to make a diagnosis. Most often, symptoms begin subtly and gradually worsen over time. Some people with Parkinson's may only experience one or two of these symptoms, and others may have all of them.
Parkinson's disease can vary greatly from person to person. Some may have only mild symptoms, such as a bit of trembling that stays consistent for many years. In others, the disease can progress quickly to the point where the person is severely disabled and heavily dependent on others for care. Over time, the initial symptoms of Parkinson's can lead to complications with chewing, swallowing, speaking or breathing. Difficulty using the bathroom and sleeping are also common.
Medications, surgery and certain therapies are all used to treat Parkinson's disease. The most common treatment for Parkinson's, and the one that is usually tried first, is a combination of two drugs, levodopa and carbidopa. This replenishes the brain's supply of dopamine and alleviates some symptoms, but its effectiveness wears off with time. Other drugs can be used to increase levodopa's effectiveness and also to treat other symptoms. A therapy called deep brain stimulation, using electrodes, also has been approved for Parkinson's.
SOURCES: U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Parkinson's Disease Foundation
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