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Facts About Parkinson's Disease

Back to 2002 Curriculum. 

What is Parkinson's Disease?

  • Parkinson's disease is a degenerative neurologic disease. Degenerative means "declining in quality." Thus, the disease increases in severity over time; neurologic refers to the nervous system. Therefore, Parkinson's disease is a disease of the nervous system that gets worse over time.

  • Parkinson's disease is also a chronic, progressive neurologic disease. Chronic means "of long duration" and progressive means "proceeding in steps" or "advancing."

  • Parkinson's disease does not go away and it gradually gets worse.

  • Parkinson's disease is named after the English physician James Parkinson, who first described the illness. Another name for this illness is paralysis agitans, which is simply the Latin translation of "shaking palsy." The names Parkinson's disease, shaking palsy and paralysis agitans all refer to the same illness.

What Happens in Parkinson's Disease?

  • In Parkinson's disease, neurons (nerve cells) of the brain area known as the substantia nigra (Latin for "black substance") are primarily affected.

  • When neurons in the substantia nigra degenerate, the brain's ability to generate body movements is disrupted and this disruption produces signs and symptoms characteristic of Parkinson's disease

    • Tremor
    • Rigidity-Akinesia (lack of movement or loss of spontaneous movement)
    • Bradykinesia (slowness of movement)
    • Problems with walking and posture.
     

Signs and Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease

  • In people with Parkinson's disease, specific groups of brain cells called neurons are slowly and progressively injured, then selectively degenerate or die. This process causes the typical symptoms of Parkinson's disease, which doctors call "characteristic symptoms" because they are the major features of Parkinson's.

Characteristics of Parkinson's Disease

  • They tremble involuntarily.

  • They find their muscles become rigid and stiff, and they lose their ability to make rapid, spontaneous movements.

  • They walk in a recognizable manner, with a typical gait in which the body is bent or flexed.

  • They may have difficulty maintaining their balance.

  • The characteristic symptoms of moderate Parkinson's disease can be remembered with the acronym:

    • T--Tremor, Involuntary trembling of limbs
    • R--Rigidity, Stiffness of muscles
    • A--Akinesia, Lack of movement or slowness in initiating and maintaining movement
    • P--Postural Instability, Characteristic bending or flexion of the body, associated with difficulty in balance and disturbances in gait
     

Early Signs and Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease

  • It is often difficult to pinpoint when a person with Parkinson's first began showing signs and symptoms of the disease. Many people vividly recall when they first noticed their tremor, but through close questioning, the physician often finds that subtle signs of the disease were present even before the tremor became noticeable.

  • Early signs and symptoms of Parkinson's disease:
    • Change in facial expression (staring, Iack of blinking)
    • Failure to swing one arm when walking -Flexion (stooped) posture
    • "Frozen" painful shoulder
    • Limping or dragging of one leg
    • Numbness, tingling, achiness or discomfort of the neck or limbs
    • Softness of the voice
    • Subjective sensation of internal trembling
    • Resting tremor
     

Long-Term Effects of Parkinson's Disease

  • Because Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder, we can generally expect that each year the signs and symptoms of the disease will become more pronounced. No one, not a physician or anyone else, can accurately predict how, or how quickly, the disease will progress in a specific individual.

  • There simply is no reliable way to evaluate the degree of cell loss in the substantia nigra, no laboratory test or widely available imaging procedure that can tell us how much cell loss has occurred or how fast it is progressing.

Teatment of Parkinson's Disease

  • Although we do not yet have treatments capable of slowing or arresting the progression of the illness, current treatments can very effectively relieve the symptoms, especially in the early years. Many people who are adequately treated notice very little or no progression of symptoms over the first few years.

  • With time, a person's degree of motor disability does tend to increase, however, and after five to 10 years of illness the symptoms will disrupt daily life. At this point, medications are needed in higher doses and must be monitored and adjusted more frequently.