What is Parkinson’s Disease? What are the symptoms? What causes it? Is there anything we can do to prevent it? 

What is Parkinson’s? 

Parkinson’s Disease occurs where nerve cells in part of the brain die, resulting in people not getting enough of a chemical they need called dopamine. Dopamine allows messages to be sent to the parts of the brain that coordinate movement. So as dopamine levels fall this triggers symptoms, like movements becoming slower. This means it takes longer to do things. 

What are the most common symptoms? 

These usually develop gradually and are mild at first. 

The most common symptoms affect bodily movement ie. 

  • Uncontrollable shaking or tremor. This usually begins in the hand or arm. It is more likely to happen when the hand or arm is at rest.  
  • Slowness of movement (bradykinesia). Physical movements become much slower than normal. This can make everyday tasks difficult. It can also result in a distinctive slow, shuffling walk with very small steps.  
  • Stiffness and tension in the muscles. This can make it difficult to move around and to make facial expressions. It can also result in painful muscle cramps (dystonia).  

These main symptoms are sometimes referred to by doctors as 'Parkinsonism. ' Parkinson’s disease is the most common cause of Parkinsonism. However there are other conditions which can mimic symptoms of Parkinsonism. So initial evaluation by an expert neurologist is important to make the correct diagnosis. 

What other physical symptoms are there? 

People with Parkinson’s may also experience some of the following: 

  • Problems with balance – increasing the risk of falls in more advanced cases
  • Loss of the sense of smell – sometimes the first symptom to appear
  • Problems urinating – like having to get up a lot in the night to urinate
  • Constipation
  • Sexual dysfunction – in men and in women
  • Dizziness when standing up – possibly even fainting
  • Difficulty swallowing – which can lead to dehydration or malnutrition
  • “Freezing” episodes - the inability to move for a moment particularly while making turns or changing direction.
  • Acting out dreams and sometimes violent movements during sleep.  
  • Excessive sweating or producing too much saliva. 

Are there mental symptoms? 

Yes. Possible mental symptoms are depression which is fairly common, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, slight memory problems and even dementia. 

Do symptoms vary depending on the individual? 

Yes. The order in which symptoms occur and how serious they are, varies from person to person. And someone with Parkinson’s would usually experience a number of the symptoms but not all of them.  

Parkinson’s is more common as people get older but sometimes younger people (aged 21 – 40) can get it. This is known as Young Onset or Early Onset Parkinson’s. 

What causes Parkinson’s? 

A small number of cases (possibly 15%) appear to be hereditary. i.e. a family history of Parkinson’s. 

Considerable research is going into discovering the cause of the other 85% of cases. A number of theories are being pursued, for example, the influence of environmental toxins. 

Is there anything we can do to prevent it? 

  • Coffee and black tea, peppers and a Mediterranean diet with plenty of vegetables might all help prevent Parkinson’s. That’s according to a review of research findings from 2015.  
  • The same review also suggested that dairy products, in particular milk, increased the risk of Parkinson’s.  

If you start to experience symptoms 

If symptoms that could be Parkinson’s arise, seek medical help as soon as possible to enable diagnosis and to begin treatment. There is no cure for Parkinson’s yet butdrugs can help manage symptoms and slow the progress of the disease. 

Exercise and movement are also recommended to reduce the risk of falling (as this is one of the symptoms of Parkinson’s). For example the English National Ballet and their partners now provide Dance for Parkinson’s programmes.   

For some people one side effect of certain Parkinson’s drugs is impulsive and compulsive behaviour (like compulsive gambling or shopping). If this happens talking therapy can help. 

Updated and reviewed by Christiane Hahne and Michael Baber, June 2015. Next review date May 2019.