Parkinson's disease occurs when certain nerve cells (neurons) in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra die or become impaired. These cells produce dopamine, a chemical messenger used by the brain to help direct and control body movement. The symptoms of Parkinson's disease appear when these dopamine-producing nerve cells become damaged or die.
The classic symptoms and signs of Parkinson's disease are:
- Tremor (shaking)
- Slowness of movement
- Rigidity (stiffness)
- Difficulty with balance
Although some forms of Parkinson's disease are genetic, the causes for most forms are unknown. Studies of environmental and inherited (genetic) factors are beginning to provide some clues.
Diagnosis is based mostly on the patient's medical history and a thorough examination of the nervous system. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be conducted to rule out other conditions that have similar symptoms. Blood tests may also be done to check for abnormal thyroid hormone levels, liver damage or other problems. Another type of imaging, called positron emission tomography (PET)
Once a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease is considered very likely, a short course of a medication, such as Levodopa, may help confirm the diagnosis. About 90% of people with Parkinson's disease respond to Levodopa or other medication. If the symptoms improve while the patient takes the medication, Parkinson's disease is essentially confirmed.
No known treatment can halt or reverse the breakdown of nerve cells that causes Parkinson's disease. However, medication can relieve symptoms and for a few patients, surgery may be effective.
Medication is usually started when symptoms begin to interfere with daily activities. Dosage is based on the stage of the disease and the specific symptoms. Additional treatment methods (exercise, physical therapy and occupational therapy) may be helpful at all stages of Parkinson's disease to help maintain strength, mobility and independence. Treatment is different for every person, and treatment needs may change as the disease progresses.
Emotional support and education about the illness should begin early and continue throughout the course of the disease. Parkinson's disease support groups are a good way to learn more and get emotional support.
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