What is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive disorder of the brain’s nervous system. The disease typically affects middle-aged and elderly people; however Young Onset Parkinson’s disease can strike patients as young as 21. Approximately 1 million people in the United States are affected by PD and more men than women are diagnosed. Parkinson’s disease results from changes in the area of the brain known as the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia contain a neurotransmitter, dopamine, which the brain uses to send signals to other areas of the brain that control movement and balance. Dopamine is essential to smooth, coordinated muscle movement.

A loss of dopamine can cause tremors, muscle rigidity, generalized pain, slowing of movement, a change in posture, and problems with balance and coordination. Often tremors begin on one side of the body and many patients notice a gradual loss of unconscious movements such as blinking, smiling, or swinging of arms while walking, and changes in handwriting. Symptoms appear when approximately 60 to 80% of dopamine-producing cells are damaged. This process can take years and as the neurons in the brain that produce dopamine begin to die. Patients may experience various non-motor symptoms such as changes in smell, sleep disorders, difficulty with speech, and even constipation before the classic motor symptoms appear. For many, these vague symptoms often lead to misdiagnoses. The cause of PD is unknown but many researchers believe it is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Approximately 15% to 25% of PD patients have a family member with the disease.

Treatments for PD range from medications such as carbidopa-levodopa to help the brain make more dopamine, exercises such as Tai chi and Big Movement, and surgeries such as Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). Some therapies target symptoms such as speech and physical therapy to strengthen voice and assist with coordination and movement. PD symptoms vary from person to person so it is important to work with your health care provider to develop a treatment plan that is right for you.