Parkinson’s disease

Alternative names
Paralysis agitans; Shaking palsy

Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the brain characterized by shaking (tremor) and difficulty with walking, movement, and coordination. The disease is associated with damage to a part of the brain that is involved with movement.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Parkinson’s disease was first described in England in 1817 by Dr. James Parkinson. The disease affects approximately 2 of every 1,000 people and most often develops after age 50. Sometimes Parkinson’s disease occurs in younger adults, but is rarely seen in children. It affects both men and women and is one of the most common neurologic disorders of the elderly.

In some cases the disease occurs within families, especially when it affects young people. Most late onset cases have no known cause. The term “parkinsonism” refers to any condition that involves a combination of the types of changes in movement seen in Parkinson’s disease, which is the most common cause of these symptoms. Parkinsonism may be caused by other disorders (secondary parkinsonism) or by external factors like certain medications used to treat schizophrenia.

Parkinson’s disease is caused by progressive deterioration of the nerve cells of the part of the brain that controls muscle movement. Dopamine, which is one of the substances used by cells to transmit impulses, is normally produced in this area. Deterioration of this area of the brain reduces the amount of dopamine available to the body.

Insufficient dopamine disturbs the balance between dopamine and other transmitters, such as acetylcholine. Without dopamine, the nerve cells cannot properly transmit messages, and this results in the loss of muscle function.

The exact reason that the cells of the brain deteriorate is unknown. The disorder may affect one or both sides of the body, with varying degrees of loss of function.

In addition to the loss of muscle control, some people with Parkinson’s disease become severely depressed. This may be due to loss of dopamine in certain brain areas involved with pleasure and mood. Lack of dopamine can also affect motivation and the ability to initiate voluntary movements.

Although early loss of mental capacities is uncommon, with severe Parkinson’s, the person may exhibit overall mental deterioration (including Dementia and hallucinations). Dementia can also be a side effect of some of the medications used to treat the disorder.

Although rare, when Parkinson’s is found in children, it appears to be due to decreased sensitivity of the nerves to dopamine rather than deterioration of the area of the brain that produces dopamine.


  • Muscle rigidity       o Stiffness       o Difficulty bending arms or legs  
  • Unstable, stooped, or slumped-over posture  
  • Loss of balance  
  • Gait (walking pattern) changes  
  • Shuffling walk  
  • Slow movements  
  • Difficulty initiating any voluntary movement       o Difficulty beginning to walk       o Difficulty getting up from a chair  
  • Small steps followed by the need to run to maintain balance  
  • Freezing of movement when the movement is stopped, inability to resume movement  
  • Muscle aches and pains (myalgia)  
  • Shaking, tremors (varying degrees, may not be present)       o Characteristically occur at rest, may occur at any time       o May become severe enough to interfere with activities       o May be worse when tired, excited, or stressed       o Finger-thumb rubbing (pill-rolling tremor) may be present  
  • Changes in facial expression       o Reduced ability to show facial expressions       o “Mask” appearance to face       o Staring       o May be unable to close mouth       o Reduced rate of blinking  
  • Voice or speech changes       o Slow speech       o Low volume       o Monotone       o Difficulty speaking  
  • Loss of fine motor skills       o Difficulty writing, may be small and illegible       o Difficulty eating       o Difficulty with any activity that requires small movements       o Uncontrolled, slow movement  
  • Frequent falls  
  • Decline in intellectual function (may occur, can be severe)  
  • A variety of gastrointestinal symptoms, mainly Constipation.

Note: Initial symptoms may be mild and nonspecific, for instance, a mild tremor or a slight feeling that one leg or foot is stiff and dragging.

Additional symptoms that may be associated with this disease:

  • Depression  
  • Confusion  
  • Dementia  
  • Seborrhea (oily skin)  
  • Loss of muscle function or feeling  
  • Muscle atrophy  
  • Memory loss  
  • Drooling  
  • Anxiety, stress, and tension

Signs and tests
The health care provider may be able to diagnose Parkinson’s disease based on the symptoms and physical examination. However, the symptoms may be difficult to assess, particularly in the elderly. For example, the tremor may not appear when the person is sitting quietly with arms in the lap. The posture changes may be similar to Osteoporosis or other changes associated with aging. Lack of facial expression may be a sign of Depression.

An examination may show “cogwheel” rigidity (jerky, stiff movements), tremors of the Parkinson’s type, and difficulty initiating or completing voluntary movements. Reflexes are essentially normal.

Tests are not usually specific for Parkinson’s, but they may be required to rule out other disorders that cause similar symptoms.


There is no known cure for Parkinson’s disease. Treatment is aimed at controlling the symptoms. Treatment must be tailored to the individual.

Medications control symptoms primarily by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain. The type of medication, the dose, the amount of time between doses, or the combination of medications used may need to be adjusted as symptoms change. Many of the medications can cause severe side effects, so monitoring and follow-up by the health care provider is important.

Deprenyl may provide some improvement to mildly affected patients. Amantadine or anticholinergic medications may be used to reduce early or mild tremors. Levodopa is a medication that the body converts to a brain transmitter called dopamine. It may be used to increase the body’s supply of dopamine, which may improve movement and balance. Carbidopa is a medication that reduces the side effects of levodopa and makes it work better.

Additional medications to help reduce symptoms or control side effects of primary treatment medications include antihistamines, antidepressants, dopamine agonists, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and others.

Good general nutrition and health are important. Exercise should continue, with the level of activity adjusted to meet the changing energy levels that may occur. Regular rest periods and avoidance of stress are recommended, because fatigue or stress can make symptoms worse. Physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy may help promote function and independence.

Simple aids, such as railings or banisters placed in commonly used areas of the house or special eating utensils, may be of great benefit to the person experiencing difficulties with daily living activities.

Social workers or other counseling services may help the patient cope with the disorder and with obtaining assistance, such as Meals-on-Wheels, as appropriate.

Experimental or less common treatments may be recommended. For example, surgery to destroy tissues responsible for tremors may reduce symptoms in some people. Transplantation of adrenal gland tissue to the brain has been attempted, with variable results.

Support Groups

Emotional support for the person with Parkinson’s disease and everyone involved may help in coping with the changes caused by the disease. This may include the National Parkinson’s Foundation or another group. See Parkinson’s disease - support group.

Expectations (prognosis)
Untreated, the disorder progresses to total disability, often accompanied by general deterioration of all brain functions, and may lead to an early death.

Treated, the disorder impairs people in varying ways. Most people respond to some extent to medications. The extent of symptom relief, and how long this control of symptoms lasts, is highly variable. The side effects of medications may be severe.


  • Varying degrees of disability  
  • Difficulty swallowing or eating  
  • Difficulty performing daily activities  
  • Injuries from falls  
  • Side effects of medications

Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider if symptoms occur that are suggestive of Parkinson’s disease.

Call your health care provider if symptoms of Parkinson’s disease worsen or progress, or if new symptoms appear, including possible side effects of medications:

  • Involuntary movements  
  • nausea and Vomiting  
  • Dizziness  
  • Changes in alertness, behavior or mood  
  • Severe confusion or disorientation  
  • Delusional behavior  
  • Hallucinations  
  • Loss of mental functions

Also call your health care provider if the condition deteriorates and the caregiver is unable to care for the person at home.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 4, 2012
by Amalia K. Gagarina, M.S., R.D.

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