Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder. It occurs when certain nerve cells (neurons) in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra die or become impaired. Normally, these cells produce a vital chemical known as dopamine. Dopamine allows smooth, coordinated function of the body’s muscles and movement. When approximately 80 percent of the dopamine-producing cells are damaged, the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease appear. The loss of dopamine production in the brain causes the primary symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

Signs and symptoms?

The key signs of Parkinson’s disease are:

  • Tremor (shaking)
  • Slowness of movement
  • Rigidity (stiffness)
  • Difficulty with balance

Other signs may include:

  • Small, cramped handwriting
  • Stiff facial expression
  • Shuffling walk
  • Muffled speech
  • Depression

Who gets Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson’s disease affects both men and women in almost equal numbers. It is estimated that 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, joining the roughly 1 million Americans who currently have Parkinson’s disease. The condition usually develops after the age of 65, but 15% of those diagnosed are under 50.

What is the treatment?

There are a number of effective medicines that help to ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Most symptoms are caused by lack of dopamine. The medicines most commonly used will attempt to either replace or mimic dopamine, which improves the tremor, rigidity and slowness associated with Parkinson’s disease. Several new medicines are being studied that may slow the progression. Many promise to improve the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease.

Can surgery help?

Surgery can ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but it is not a cure. Because of the risks associated with brain surgery, it is usually not considered unless all appropriate medications have been tried unsuccessfully. When considering surgery, it is important to see both a neurologist and brain surgeon who specialize in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

For more information on Parkinson’s disease, visit the National Parkinson Foundation.