Frequently Asked Questions about Parkinson's Disease
Q: What is Parkinson's disease?
Parkinson's disease was first described by James Parkinson in the 1800s as "the shaking palsy." Since then, a great deal has been learned about the disorder, and it is now estimated that nearly one million Americans are living with the disease.
Parkinson's disease is a chronic, progressive neurologic disorder. This means that Parkinson's worsens over time – and, as of now, while there are many effective treatments for its symptoms, there is no cure.
The motor symptoms of Parkinson's are a result of the progressive degeneration of nerve cells in the brainstem, particularly those that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger that allows nerve cells to "talk," or send messages. In the case of Parkinson's disease, the loss of these cells enacts in a wide variety of symptoms, including the loss of smooth and coordinated movement.
Q: What are the symptoms of Parkinson's disease?
Parkinson's disease is characterized by these cardinal symptoms:
- Gait instability or balance and coordination issues
- Rigidity or stiffness of the limbs
- Slowness of movement (bradykinesia)
- Tremor or trembling in the arms, legs, hands, or jaw
Not all people with Parkinson's disease experience the same symptoms, or the same severity. In addition, symptoms in the same individual may vary over time.
Parkinson's disease symptoms are categorized as motor (affecting movement) or non-motor. In addition to rigidity or stiffness, slowness of movement, tremor, and gait or postural instability, people with this condition may also exhibit a lack of facial expression and small, constricted handwriting. Non-motor symptoms may include anxiety, depression, impaired sense of smell, sleep disorders, and autonomic dysfunction. These effects may appear slowly over time and may mimic other diseases. Because of this, Parkinson's may often be misdiagnosed or undiagnosed for many years. Learn more about Parkinson's disease symptoms
Q: How is Parkinson's disease diagnosed?
There is no simple, single laboratory or blood test to diagnose Parkinson's disease. A skilled clinician will begin the diagnostic process by taking a complete medical and family history and carefully observing any visible symptoms. Blood tests, lab tests, or imaging studies may be used to rule out other diseases or conditions that may be causing symptoms. The diagnosis of Parkinson's disease – like many other movement disorders – is a clinical diagnosis. The physicians in the Movement Disorders Center at Mount Sinai are specifically trained diagnosing of Parkinson's disease. Learn more about how Parkinson's disease is diagnosed
Q: What causes Parkinson's disease?
It is likely that Parkinson's disease is caused by a combination of factors, including genetics and environmental "triggers." While scientists have discovered specific genes and elements responsible for some types of Parkinson's, the cause of most cases remains unclear.
Q: Who is at risk for Parkinson's?
The risk of developing Parkinson's disease increases with age, but it can affect younger people as well. This is termed "young onset PD," or YOPD. Scientists have discovered that certain environmental factors (such as exposure to certain toxins or drugs) may result in the symptoms of PD, but, in general, it is believed that a combination of predisposing genetic factors and "triggering" events is the cause of most the disorder.
Q: What are the treatment options for Parkinson's disease?
As of now, there is no cure for Parkinson's disease and no proven treatments to stop or slow its progression. However, there are a variety of medications and surgical options that can help improve symptoms. The decision when to begin medication for Parkinson's and what treatment to select is a personal one that's best made by the person living with condition and his or her care team.
For people with Parkinson's who are no longer adequately managed with medication or who are experiencing intolerable motor fluctuations on their medications, surgery may be an option. The Center for Neuromodulation at Mount Sinai provides expert consultation and treatment for individuals who are appropriate surgical candidates and considering deep brain stimulation (DBS) for the management of their symptoms. DBS involves the implantation of electrodes in brain areas responsible for Parkinson's symptoms and may result in improved quality of life and a concomitant decrease in medications. Learn more about Parkinson's disease treatment
In addition to medication and surgical management for Parkinson's, physical and occupational therapy, as well as speech therapy, may be helpful in alleviating the impact of symptoms. Physical and vocal exercises have also shown benefit.
Q: How can I find others living with Parkinson's disease?
Support groups for people with Parkinson's disease and their caregivers are an important source of information and emotional comfort. There are many national and local advocacy and support organizations as well as activities at Mount Sinai and resources for people living with this condition.
Robert and John M. Bendheim Parkinson and Movement Disorders Center
5 East 98th Street, Box 1138
New York, NY 10029-6574
Arnold Eisenhart underwent DBS surgery for his PD at the Center for Neuromodulation at Mount Sinai. Watch his wife Rochelle Eisenhart describe the positive impact of DBS on their quality of life