Parkinson’s disease develops when the neurons of the substantia nigra in the brain become progressively damaged and depleted. However the first signs of Parkinson’s disease are not obvious until about 80% of these neurons, that are responsible for the production a neurotransmitter called dopamine which helps to control muscle movement, are damaged beyond repair. Thus the early symptoms are actually only seen for the first time quite late on in the disease.
Fortunately there are a number of signs that point towards the development of the disease and so watching out for these can have positive effects on diagnosing Parkinson’s disease as early as possible.
- Tremors – these are one of the first signs of the disease to be noticed by many sufferers. In the early stages it is common for just the extremities such as the hands and the feet to be affected, however as progression occurs the head, neck and limbs may also begin to shake uncontrollably. Other disease states also have tremors as a symptom however the movements associate with Parkinson’s disease disappear when the sufferer voluntarily moves and it is this factor that points to Parkinson’s disease as being the underlying cause.
- Rigidity – many sufferers don’t even realise they have rigidity until someone else points it out to them, for example a doctor or physiotherapist. Rigidity is one of the defining factors of Parkinson’s disease and so if extensive muscle tone is discovered during an examination, further tests will be carried out in order to ascertain whether Parkinson’s disease is in fact the cause.
- Poor balance and coordination – the tightness of the muscles and uncontrollable tremors often affect a person’s balance and make their hand/eye coordination decrease dramatically. A sufferer may find themselves dropping things, being unable to catch objects thrown to them, being unable to hold objects they could hold in the past and so on. They may also stumble over nothing and have to grab hold of things to help stabilise themselves.
- Difficulty with movement – this can manifest itself as being slow movements (bradykinesia), a problem with actually initiating a movement (akinesia) or a decrease in the range of motion (hypokinesia). This last example will become particularly noticeable in the way a sufferer walks i.e. their steps will be short and shuffled and their arms will have very little swing, and in they way they write i.e. their handwriting will decrease in size and their letters will be poorly formed until eventually the handwriting will become illegible.
- Other sensory signs – sufferers often complain of things such as pain in the affected areas, a feeling of restlessness even though they are actually physically exhausted, burning sensations in the extremities and occasionally numbness.
The signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease can also be attributed to other illnesses such as stress and absolute exhaustion so many sufferers don’t visit the doctor until such a time as they realise the symptoms are not getting any better, which can be months down the line. Contrary to popular belief, Parkinson’s disease is not age specific and although it is most commonly seen in the older generation (60+) there is a growing number of cases that develop earlier on in life, thus if you have any of the signs mentioned above and are in the least bit worried then a trip to your local doctor is advised, even if it is only to put your mind at rest.