Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's disease occurs when there is a problem with certain nerve cells in the brain that control movement. The disease affects the way you move. The most common symptom is tremors. Parkinson's disease gets worse over time. But usually this happens slowly, over many years.


What are the symptoms of Parkinson's disease?

Symptoms of Parkinson's disease differ from person to person. Tremor (shaking) may be the first symptom you notice. It's one of the most common signs of the disease, although not everyone has it.

Tremor often starts in just one arm or leg or on only one side of the body. It may be worse when you're awake but not moving the affected arm or leg. It may get better when you move the limb or you're asleep.

Other common symptoms include:

  • Stiff muscles.
  • Slow movement.
  • Problems with balance or walking.
  • Pain.

In time, Parkinson's affects muscles all through your body. It can lead to problems like trouble swallowing or constipation.

Some people with Parkinson's have depression. In the later stages of the disease, they may have a fixed or blank expression, trouble speaking, and other problems. Some people also lose mental skills (dementia).

Course of the Disease

What happens when you have Parkinson's disease?

The course of Parkinson's disease varies, but it can include tremors, slow movement, stiffness, and problems with balance or walking. It may also include pain, depression, sleep problems and other non-movement symptoms. Parkinson's disease gets worse over time.

Mild symptoms

Tremor is often the first symptom. Early on, tremor and other symptoms occur in just one arm or leg or on only one side of the body. Changes in posture, walking, and facial expressions may occur. Other movement symptoms may include stiffness and moving slowly. Symptoms may not cause trouble in your daily life.

Moderate symptoms

With time, symptoms usually spread to both sides of the body. As the disease gets worse, movement is usually slower. Poor coordination may be a problem. Tasks such as writing, shaving, or brushing teeth may be hard. Changes in handwriting are common. Stiff muscles may cause pain or changes in posture.

Over time, Parkinson's medicines may not work as well. And they can cause side effects that include other movement problems or behavior changes. Changing doses or medicines may help.

Changes in posture and balance may get worse. A person with Parkinson's tends to walk in a stooped manner with quick, shuffling steps. Sometimes the person may freeze. This is a sudden, brief inability to move. It most often affects walking. Falls may be common.

The disease can affect many of the muscles used for chewing and swallowing. This can lead to problems with eating, as well as drooling and choking. It can also affect the muscles that are used for speech. This can lead to low or soft speech, unclear speech sounds, and other problems.

Problems with sexual function and drive are common in people with Parkinson's disease. You may:

  • Have trouble getting or keeping an erection.
  • Have vaginal dryness or urinate during sex.
  • Have muscle stiffness that can make sex difficult.

Severe symptoms

After years, muscle stiffness, slow movement, tremors, and balance get worse. Walking becomes very hard. Some people may need to be in a wheelchair or bed most of the day. They will need help with most or all of the tasks of daily living.

There may be other movement problems. These can get somewhat better with changes to the person's medicine.

Mild changes in thinking may occur in earlier stages of Parkinson's disease.Dementia, hallucinations, and delusions may develop in many people who have late-stage Parkinson's disease. Dementia symptoms may include confusion, getting lost, and memory loss. Some Parkinson's medicines can make this problem worse.


What causes Parkinson's disease?

Normally, nerve cells in the brain make an important chemical called dopamine. Dopamine sends signals to the part of your brain that controls movement. It lets your muscles move smoothly and do what you want them to do. When you have Parkinson's, these nerve cells break down. Then you no longer have enough dopamine, and you have trouble moving the way you want to.

No one knows for sure what makes these nerve cells break down. But researchers are studying many possible causes, including aging and poisons in the environment.


How is Parkinson's disease diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and your past health and will do a neurological exam. This exam includes questions and tests that show how well your nerves are working. For example, your doctor will watch how you move and check your muscle strength and reflexes. The doctor may check your vision.

Your doctor also may check your sense of smell and ask you questions about your mood.

In some cases, your doctor will have you try a medicine for Parkinson's disease. If that medicine helps your symptoms, it may help the doctor find out if you have the disease.

There are no lab or blood tests that can help your doctor diagnose Parkinson's. But you may have tests to help your doctor rule out other diseases that could be causing your symptoms. For example, you might have an MRI to look for signs of a stroke or brain tumor.

An imaging test called a DaTscan may be done to help make the diagnosis.


How are medicines used to treat Parkinson's disease?

Medicines are the most common treatment for Parkinson's disease. The goal is to correct the shortage of the brain chemical dopamine. This shortage causes the symptoms of Parkinson's.

Your doctor can help you decide when to start medicine. This may be when symptoms affect your daily life. Symptoms change as the disease gets worse. So your doctor will adjust your medicine as symptoms appear.

Medicines often improve symptoms. But they also may cause side effects. Levodopa works best to control movement symptoms. But after a few years, it can cause movement problems like uncontrollable jerking movements. It also may suddenly stop working. Levodopa is usually combined with carbidopa. Carbidopa decreases the possible side effects from levodopa.

Dopamine agonists also help movement symptoms. They can cause side effects like behavior changes and sleep attacks (sudden severe sleepiness). Talk to your doctor about what medicine is right for you.

Other medicines may also be used to help control non-movement symptoms, such as pain or depression.

It may take some time to find the best medicines for you.

Several medicines may be used at different stages of the disease. They include:

  • Levodopa with carbidopa.
  • Dopamine agonists.
  • MAO-B inhibitors.
  • Amantadine.
  • Anticholinergic agents.
  • COMT inhibitors.
  • Apomorphine.

Physical Therapy

How is physical therapy used to treat Parkinson's disease?

A physical therapist can help you learn exercises and stretches to do at home to improve your posture, strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance.

A physical or occupational therapist can also help you to:

  • Plan more efficient movements for daily living activities (such as bathing and dressing) so that these activities are easier and less tiring.
  • Improve your walking and prevent falls.
  • Use walking aids (such as canes or walkers) correctly.


How can you care for yourself when you have Parkinson's disease?

Early on, Parkinson's disease may not greatly disrupt your life. But for most people, the disease becomes more disabling over time. Home treatment can help you adjust as time goes on and help you stay independent for as long as possible.

Making changes to your home and lifestyle

  • Changes to your activities and your home may help. For example, simplify your daily activities and change the location of furniture so that you can hold on to something as you move around the house, which can help prevent falls.
  • Eat healthy foods. This includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, grains, cereals, legumes, poultry, fish, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products.
  • Exercise and do physical therapy. They have benefits in both early and advanced stages of the disease. Exercise also may slow the worsening/progression of Parkinson's disease.

Improving your motor skills

  • Work on your tremor. This may include things like putting a little weight on your hand to help reduce tremor and restore control.
  • Improve speech quality by working with a speech therapist (also called a speech-language pathologist).
  • Reduce problems with eating and drooling by changing how and what you eat. For example, avoid foods that crumble easily.
  • Practice overcoming "freezing" with various techniques, such as stepping toward a specific target on the ground. A physical therapist may be able to help you with this.

Improving your mood and memory

  • Talk to someone about depression. If you are feeling sad or depressed, ask a friend or family member for help. If these feelings don't go away, or if they get worse, talk to your doctor. They may be able to suggest someone for you to talk to. Or your doctor may give you medicine that can help.
  • Know the signs of dementia. Dementia is common late in Parkinson's disease. Symptoms may include confusion, getting lost, and memory loss. If you (or a family member) notice that you are confused a lot or have trouble thinking clearly, talk to your doctor. There are medicines that can help.

Helping your non-movement symptoms

  • Be open about problems with sex. Talk to your doctor about your specific issues. The doctor may suggest changes that can help. These may include changing your medicine, getting some exercise, or using lubrication.
  • Manage constipation. A high fiber diet, staying hydrated, and regular exercise can help.


Logo for the American Parkinson Disease Association

American Parkinson Disease Association

Parkinson's Disease Information and Referral Center

The Parkinson's Disease Information and Referral Center at the University of Kentucky, located in Lexington, Kentucky provides educational and emotional support to Parkinson disease patients and their families. Established in 2007, the Kentucky Parkinson's Disease Information & Referral Center offers the following services:

  • Advocacy: We support the advocacy and public policy activities conducted by the American Parkinson’s Disease Association national office in Staten Island, N.Y.
  • Aquatic exercise: This water exercise program designed to promote safe and effective opportunities for group exercise.
  • Counseling: A registered nurse is available by phone to help families explore effective interventions for maintaining optimal health and wellness in relation to Parkinson’s disease.
  • Exercise: A land-based exercise program developed specifically for the Parkinson’s patient to focuses on balance, coordination and improving speech.
  • Information and resource center: Books, manuals, videos, community and state resources, as well as the latest research information are available, and educational booklets can be mailed.
  • Newly diagnosed family meetings: Meetings provide an opportunity for those newly diagnosed to meet with a registered nurse to gain a better understanding of their disease and local resources that are available.
  • Newsletter: Our newsletter includes the most current information available on treatment and research in addition to articles of local interest. 
  • Referral assistance: A registered nurse assists patients and families with recommendations for movement disorder specialists and health professionals knowledgeable about Parkinson’s disease.
  • Research: We support the mission of APDA nationally by funding promising research.
  • Speaker's bureau: Speakers are available for community presentations on Parkinson’s disease.
  • Speech therapy: This program works with patients to maintain and strengthen their voices.
  • Support groups: A statewide network of support groups is open to those interested in exchanging ideas and learning the most effective ways to cope with Parkinson’s disease.

The American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA) is the largest grassroots network dedicated to fighting Parkinson’s disease (PD) and works tirelessly to assist the more than 1 million Americans with PD live life to the fullest in the face of this chronic, neurological disorder. Founded in 1961, APDA has raised and invested more than $170 million to provide outstanding patient services and educational programs, elevate public awareness about the disease, and support research designed to unlock the mysteries of PD and ultimately put an end to this disease. To join us in the fight against Parkinson’s disease and to learn more about the support APDA provides nationally through our network of Chapters and Information & Referral (I&R) Centers, as well as our national Research Program and Centers for Advanced Research, please visit us at

Parkinson's disease affects more than 1 million people in the United States annually, with at least 65,000 new cases diagnosed each year. The chronic and progressive neurological condition is the second most common neurodegenerative aging disorder, after Alzheimer's disease.

For more information contact:
Renee Wagner
Janet Greene

Appointments and information: 859-257-2732 or 866-554-2732 (APDA)

UK HealthCare Parkinson's 101 Classes

This class, for individuals who have been diagnosed for less than two years, is scheduled periodically throughout the year. (If you have been diagnosed longer than two years and would like more information, feel free to attend.) The class is free, but registration is required. To register and confirm dates and locations, call 866-554-2732.  

Parkinson's Foundation

For more than half a century, the Parkinson's Foundation has focused on meeting the needs in the care and treatment of people with Parkinson's disease. The Parkinson's Foundation has funded more than $164 million in care, research and support services.

Lexington Area Parkinson's Support Group

The Lexington Area Parkinson’s Support Group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit serving the needs of people with Parkinson’s Disease and their care partners in the Lexington, Kentucky area by providing hope and encouragement through resources, education and support. Programs and support offered by LAPSG include: monthly support group meetings, guest speaker programs, activities and classes, medication management, annual care partners retreat, and annual gathering for the good.

Parkinson Support Center of Kentuckiana

The Parkinson Support Center of Kentuckiana is a grassroots organization, founded by Louisville-area people with Parkinson’s disease. While it has grown and expanded its programs and services beyond support groups, its core values remain centered on ensuring that no one has to face Parkinson’s disease alone. Its rally cry is 'live well and fight back' against Parkinson's!

Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.