Includes Excerpts from WebMD

What Is It? Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, neurodegenerative, brain disorder that gets worse over time. It causes cells in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra to die. This part of the brain is important for controlling movement. That’s why people with Parkinson’s often shake or show other abnormal movements. Treatments can help with symptoms, but there is no way to slow or reverse the condition.

What Causes It? No one knows exactly why a person gets Parkinson’s. It’s probably due to a mix of things, including genes and exposure to certain toxins. There’s usually no way to predict who will get it or why. It’s rare for Parkinson’s to run in families. Most of the time, it seems to happen randomly.

Who Gets Parkinson’s? Both men and women get Parkinson’s disease. It’s 1.5 times more common in men. Until recently it is more common in older people. Only about 4 out of every 100 cases happen in people under age 50. At least 1 million people in the U.S. and 10 million around the world have this condition.

Symptoms The four main symptoms of Parkinson’s are related to movement:

Tremors or shaking of hands, arms, legs, jaw, or head

Stiffness of arms, legs, and trunk

Slowed movement

Trouble with balance and coordination

You might also notice:

Your arms don’t swing as freely when you walk

You can’t make facial expressions

Your legs feel heavy

Posture becomes a little stooped

Handwriting gets smaller

Your arms or legs get stiff

You have symptoms only on one side of your body, like a tremor in one arm

Other signs to watch for people with Parkinson’s may also have:

Depression or other emotional changes

Trouble chewing, swallowing or speaking

Trouble sleeping


What to Expect Parkinson’s is a progressive disease. That means that your symptoms usually get worse over time. The symptoms of Parkinson's also vary a lot from one person to the next. How quickly it worsens and how severe it gets can vary a lot, too. Early symptoms may be easy to ignore or dismiss. They might start on one side of your body, showing up on the other side only later. 

            Parkinson’s comes with two main buckets of possible symptoms. One affects your ability to move and leads to motor issues like tremors and rigid muscles. The other bucket has non-motor symptoms, like pain, loss of smell, and dementia.

            You may not get all the symptoms. And you can’t predict how bad they’ll be, or how fast they’ll get worse. One person may have slight tremors but severe dementia. Another might have major tremors but no issues with thinking or memory. And someone else may have severe symptoms all around.

Diagnosis At first, it can be hard for doctors to tell if you have Parkinson’s. That’s in part because symptoms vary so much. Other disorders also can look similar. There’s no single test for it. Your doctor might order imaging tests to rule out other conditions. They’ll also ask questions about symptoms, medications, and any exposure to toxins. Because the symptoms of Parkinson's vary and often overlap other conditions, it is misdiagnosed up to 30% of the time. There is generic or general Parkinson’s and then there are Parkinsonisms

Getting a Second Opinion It is surprising that more than one in three patients never seek second opinions for their diagnosis. Getting a second opinion from a Movement Disorder Specialist is highly suggested. A movement disorder specialist is a neurologist with additional training in Parkinson's disease who personalizes care to an individual's symptoms and needs. People with Parkinson's who see a movement disorder specialist often report feeling more informed and better equipped to manage symptoms

Treatment: Drugs That Make Dopamine Parkinson's affects nerve cells in your brain that make a chemical called dopamine. As a result, levels of the chemical fall. Doctors usually start treatment with levodopa (L-dopa). Your brain turns it into dopamine. But it can make you sick to your stomach, so you’ll probably take it with another medicine called carbidopa to control these side effects. The combination drug is called carbidopa-levodopa (Parcopa, Rytary, Sinemet).

Is Surgery an Option? If medicine doesn’t work well enough, your doctor may suggest deep brain stimulation (DBS). In DBS, your doctor implants electrodes deep in the brain. A device connected to them delivers electrical pulses. Those pulses can help control the tremors caused by Parkinson's.

In the past, doctors sometimes used other operations to damage the brain in ways to help with movement symptoms. But they rarely use those surgeries now.

These Therapies Also May Help

  • Physical therapy can teach you exercises to improve strength and balance and help you stay independent. 
  • Occupational therapy shows you new ways to manage daily tasks. 
  • Speech therapy can help with slurred or unclear speech.

Food and Exercise Eating healthy foods can help you feel better. It may also help with certain Parkinson’s symptoms, such as constipation. Getting regular exercise will also boost strength, flexibility, and balance. Ask your doctor to recommend a physical therapist or exercise program.

What Else Helps Along with your regular medical care, these approaches may help with mood, energy, and how you feel day to day:

  • Massage
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga
  • Meditation

Find Support It can help to talk with a counselor or support group. Your doctor may know of local resources. There are also many organizations like Parkinson’s Resource Organization dedicated to Parkinson’s.

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Parkinson's Resource Organization
74785 Highway 111
Suite 208
Indian Wells, CA 92210

Local Phone
(760) 773-5628

Toll-Free Phone
(877) 775-4111

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Updated: August 16, 2017