Parkinson's disease is a relatively rare condition. Experts estimate that there are 1 million Americans who have Parkinson’s and over 10 million sufferers around the world. While there is only a .3% chance that you have the disease, it is a serious condition. If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may have Parkinson's, you should consult with a doctor right away.

This article will help you understand the symptoms of Parkinson’s, how it progresses, how it is diagnosed, the medical specialists who treat it and more. Armed with this information, you can determine your next steps in managing your health care.

What Is Parkinson's Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a disorder caused when nerves in your brain start to deteriorate. Nerves in your brain normally produce a chemical called dopamine to give you the ability to control your movements, body, and emotions. When you have Parkinson’s disease, your brain slowly stops producing dopamine. Therefore, over time, you have less control.

Parkinson’s usually affects people after 50 years of age. It takes years for symptoms to develop, and they will worsen slowly over time. However, many people live with the disease for many years.

Stages and Types of Parkinson's Disease

There is only one type of Parkinson’s disease. However, there is another category of related illnesses you should be aware of called Parkinsonism, which a group of disorders similar to Parkinson’s that experts haven’t yet clearly defined or named. Your doctor will be able to tell you more about your particular situation.

Since Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, doctors have created a description of the stages you may experience. Keep in mind that everyone’s experience is different, and some people never progress to the advanced stages.

  • Stage One: Mild symptoms may occur, usually on one side of the body, but there is typically no interference with daily living.
  • Stage Two: Symptoms worsen and now affect both sides of the body. Daily tasks may become more difficult.
  • Stage Three: This phase is characterized by a loss of balance, with movements slowing down and falls becoming more common.
  • Stage Four: Symptoms become severe, and a walker may be necessary to support any movement. Additionally, assistance is required for daily tasks, preventing the patient from living alone.
  • Stage Five: In this advanced stage, a patient will probably need a wheelchair, or they may be bedridden. In addition to movement issues, the patient may suffer from hallucinations, delusions and other non-motor symptoms (see below).

Symptoms and Causes

Doctors have yet to identify the cause of Parkinson’s. Some evidence points to genetics, environmental factors, or both. While Parkinson’s is known as a movement disorder, experts divide symptoms into two categories because you may experience both motor and non-motor symptoms at the same time.

Motor symptoms include:

  • Tremors (rhythmic shaking of a hand or leg)
  • Rigidity
  • Slow movement
  • Balance problems
  • Walking problems
  • Change in the tone or volume of speech

Non-motor symptoms include:

  • Reduced sense of smell
  • Sweating
  • Sleep disruption
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Cognitive changes in advanced stages, such as delusions or hallucinations
  • Personality changes

Prevention and Risks

Right now, doctors and researchers don’t know the exact cause of Parkinson’s disease. Therefore, it’s not possible to make recommendations about prevention. Much research is underway. Researchers have identified 13 gene mutations that are associated with the disease, and there is hope that continued genetic studies will result in better ways to predict and treat the disease.

There are several risk categories:

  • Age: Parkinson’s doesn’t typically affect young adults. Most people will develop the disease when they are 50 years old or older, and risk does increase with age.
  • Heredity: If you have many people in your family with Parkinson’s, you’ll be at higher risk.
  • Sex: Parkinson’s affects more men than women.

Diagnosis and Tests

Your doctor will diagnose Parkinson’s clinically, which means that your doctor will look for symptoms of Parkinson’s by observing, talking to you and performing neurological tests when indicated. There is no blood test or scan that can definitively diagnose Parkinson’s.

Doctors will use brain imaging for diagnosis in some cases. If your doctor can’t make a positive diagnosis, brain imaging may help. The images are also helpful for your doctor to track changes.

Sometimes a diagnosis will depend on how you respond to Parkinson’s medication. Medicine used to control Parkinson’s usually has a very predictable impact on symptoms. If you don’t respond as if you have Parkinson’s, your doctor can work with you to identify other issues.

Treatment, Procedures, and Medication

Once you have a confirmed diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, you’ll want to assemble a care team that can help you live well, even with the disease. A neurologist will be a key member of your team. When you look for a neurologist, experts recommend that you consult with a Movement Disorder Specialist (MDS). This type of neurologist has received specific training in movement disorders and is best qualified to create your treatment plan.

The composition of the team will undoubtedly change over time, but work with your doctor to consider these team members:

  • Primary care provider
  • Neurologist and a Movement Disorders Specialist (MDS)
  • Physical, occupational, and speech therapists
  • Nutritionist
  • Psychologist
  • Social Worker

Treatment often starts with a choice of several types of medicines that help to control symptoms. Your doctor will help you choose a medication based on your symptoms, age, activities and the potential for side effects.

The FDA approved deep brain stimulation as a treatment for Parkinson’s over a decade ago. The procedure places implants on one or both sides of the brain that are controlled by a pacemaker-type device.

People have also benefited from other types of intervention, such as exercise, yoga, massage, natural medicines, and a nutritional diet.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

There is no cure for Parkinson’s, but having a healthy lifestyle is your best weapon in working to maintain your quality of life:

  • Eat healthy (see next section).
  • Learn how to manage daily activities, such as bathing and getting dressed, to continue to live a full life.
  • Update your home to decrease the chances of falling or having another type of accident.
  • If you experience “freezing,” where your feet seem stuck to the floor, get advice from a medical professional on proven ways to manage it.
  • You’re at an increased risk of developing melanoma. Therefore, control your exposure to direct sunlight and schedule annual dermatology examinations.

Diet can play a significant role in managing Parkinson’s. Here are some dietary tips:

  • Avoid fad diets. Choose from all food groups for healthy overall nutrition.
  • Grain products and fruits and vegetables can help lower your fat intake. Give preference to brightly colored and dark fruits and vegetables, which contain more vitamins and antioxidants than light-colored produce.
  • Reduce your intake of sugar, salt, and sodium.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Use alcohol in moderation, especially if you are on any medication.

Conclusion

Many people live well with Parkinson’s disease. Take control of your health now by reading more about Parkinson’s, and communicate with your doctors to ensure that you’re doing all you can to manage the impact Parkinson’s has on your life.