Early Signs of Parkinson’s: Find out everything
Every year 50,000 people will be newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Unfortunately, for many of these people, this diagnosis will come as a complete surprise. So, I began to wonder if there was any way that at least some of these people could have seen the disease coming. Are there warning signs of Parkinson’s Disease? What are the early signs of Parkinson’s? What does the beginning of Parkinson’s look like? This article will answer these questions with an in-depth examination of the early signs of Parkinson’s symptoms.
Early signs of Parkinson’s: What is Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s Disease is a degenerative neurological movement disorder. It affects movement by acting on the levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced by the neurons in the brain and controls the body’s motor function. Parkinson’s disease is said to set in when these dopamine creating neurons begin to die off causing a decrease in the level of dopamine in the brain. This decrease in dopamine causes a change in the brain’s ability to control movement.
Motor System Related Early Signs of Parkinson’s
Due to the fact that Parkinson’s is a disorder related to movement, many early signs of Parkinson’s involve changes in motor function. Not all of these movement changes look the way you might think, however. This is because the body’s motor system is quite complex. It controls every movement in the body. This includes both movements that are big and obvious, such as walking and dancing, and movements that are small and often unseen by the human eye, such as the movements in the digestive system. Thus some early motor related warnings of Parkinson’s are quite hard to spot. It is important to keep a close eye out for any change in your body’s movements, even movements that seem quite small. Common early motor symptoms of Parkinson’s include:
Early signs of Parkinson’s: Tremors
Tremors are the intermittent or incessant shaking of one or more of the body’s extremities. It can be as obvious as the shaking of a finger or hand, or as subtle of as shaking of one of your lips. The shaking occurs only when the affected extremity is at rest and usually stops once the extremity is in motion. Tremors can be very hard to notice. One should keep a close lookout for them, however, as they are common early signs of Parkinson’s.
Early signs of Parkinson’s: Changes in Walking
Changes in gate or trouble turning are also common early signs of Parkinson’s. People with early signs of Parkinson’s often also walk with shorter steps and move their arms less as they move. Early Parkinson’s patients often look like they are shuffling rather than walking.
Early signs of Parkinson’s: Masking
Masking refers to muted facial expressions. Early Parkinson’s patients will often have facial expressions that appear “flat” or even out of context. They may also have inconsistent or lack of eye blinking. These facial changes in expression and movement are largely unknown to the person experiencing them. Masking is therefore usually first noticed by those around you. Having others tell you that you often appear to lack emotion or seem upset when you are not is an early warning that you might be experiencing Parkinson’s disease. Masking is often the first sign of the Parkinsonian symptom known as bradykinesia, the slowing of movement. As the disease progresses and bradykinesia worsens, it may become hard to initiate voluntary movement. Masking is, therefore, a particularly important early sign of Parkinson’s to be on the lookout for.
Early signs of Parkinson’s: Muscle Rigidity
Another early sign of Parkinson’s is experiencing muscle tightness and tension in joints such as your wrist, knee, or elbow. This tension usually comes with a great deal of pain, and may even cause you to have trouble moving.
Early signs of Parkinson’s: Changes in Posture
The postural changes associated with Parkinson’s do not occur immediately, but rather start small and grow as the disease progresses. This means that early Parkinson’s patients will not see a drastic change in their posture. An early sign of Parkinson’s, therefore, may be something as small as stooping or leaning to one side when you stand. This occurs because of the loss of balance and muscle coordination that comes with Parkinson’s. Something to look out for early on Parkinson’s is whether or not your postural changes persist over time. Persistence is an important factor because there are plenty of other conditions that may cause a stoop or lean, such as a back injury. However, whereas someone with a back injury will notice a restoration of normal posture as they heal, the postural changes associated with Parkinson’s are permanent.
Early signs of Parkinson’s: Vocal Changes
People with early Parkinson’s Disease often have vocal changes. This is usually seen as a noticeable decrease in the volume of your speech. This “soft voice” is once again a Parkinson’s warning sign that is usually noticed only by others before yourself. People with the vocal changes associated with Parkinson’s usually do not know that they are talking any differently than normal.
Early signs of Parkinson’s: Constipation
As stated earlier in the article, the body’s motor system controls digestive movement. This means that chronic constipation may, in fact, be an early indicator or Parkinson’s. While constipation may seem rather benign, it is actually an extremely important early symptom of Parkinson’s to be on the lookout for, as it often predates the other common symptoms of the disease. It may in fact actually be one of the first signs that you are experiencing Parkinson’s Disease
Early signs of Parkinson’s: Changes in Handwriting
Parkinson’s Disease can cause you to have trouble controlling fine motor skills, such as writing. Therefore, early on in the disease, you might see changes in your handwriting. The most common change in writing seen in early Parkinson’s is something called Micrographia. Micrographia is the medical term for “small handwriting.” Early on in Parkinson’s, you will often have “cramped” handwriting. This means that not only do you space your words closely together, but your actual letters are shrunken in size.
Non-Motor System Related Early Signs of Parkinson’s
It may come as a surprise to you to learn that a large number of Parkinson’s symptoms do not have anything to do with movement. While Parkinson’s is classified as a progressive movement disorder, the inner workings of the disease are extremely complex. Parkinson’s can affect many bodily functions other than just those associated with the body’s motor system. This is mainly because Parkinson’s disorder is caused by an imbalance of the dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is an intricate chemical that controls much more than just movement. In fact, scientists do not yet entirely know all of the roles that dopamine plays in both the brain and body.
Early signs of Parkinson’s: So, What Exactly Does Dopamine Do?
One thing that dopamine is known to do other than control movement is to control the brains motivational reward system. This means that every time you evaluate whether a sensation or experience is salient or not, your brain is using dopamine to help you make that decision. Thus, dopamine helps define the importance of an otherwise neutral stimulus. Stimuli that are considered rewards in the brain such as food, drugs, and sex are associated with an increase in the dopamine levels in the brain. Therefore, higher levels of dopamine boost your mood and increase pleasure.
Another thing that dopamine levels are known to play a role in is certain aspects of task performance. Dopamine is not only associated with concentration and motivation, but also with your ability to organize thoughts and behaviors. Dopamine is thought to be positively correlated with cognitive function.
While it is not yet completely understood exactly what the limitations of dopamine’s role in the body and brain are, it is clear from the two examples above that it plays a vital role in many areas of function. With this understanding, it is easy to see how the decrease in dopamine levels associated with Parkinson’s can cause symptomatology that is not movement related. It is just as important, therefore, to keep an eye out for early signs of Parkinson’s that do not involve the motor-system. Some of these early Parkinson’s warning signs are listed below:
Early signs of Parkinson’s non-motor: Loss of Smell
Almost everyone afflicted with Parkinson’s has some level of smell loss. While it may not seem like a big deal, it may actually be the most important early sign of Parkinson’s to be on the lookout for. It is so important because it is often the earliest symptom of Parkinson’s that patients experience. It is imperative to note that not everyone who experiences a degree of smell loss will develop Parkinson’s. However, for those who do, it is often the first symptom they report noticing.
Early signs of Parkinson’s non-motor: Depression
Depression is experienced by a huge portion of the population. While most of the time it is unrelated to Parkinson’s in any way, it is in fact still an early warning of the disease. It is easy to see why when reexamining the role of dopamine in the brain’s motivational reward system. As stated earlier, increased dopamine leads to a boost in mood. From there, it is not too hard to predict that decreases in dopamine levels lead to a depressed mood. The decrease in dopamine levels that accompany Parkinson’s means that stimuli simply feel less rewarding to the brain. This sensation of decreased rewards is then generalized into a decreased mood level.
Early signs of Parkinson’s non-motor: Apathy
The feeling of apathy and boredom experienced in early signs of Parkinson’s is closely related to early Parkinsonian depression. Once again, the culprit is the lower level of dopamine the disease causes. As dopamine is a necessity for assigning salience to neutral stimuli, a decreased dopamine means that stimuli across the board feel less important. This is enough to make anyone apathetic.
Early signs of Parkinson’s non-motor: Anxiety
As with depression, millions of people experience anxiety who do not have Parkinson’s disorder. Once again, it is an early sign of the disease anyway. Why? Let’s take one last visit to the dopamine well. Anxiety seems to be closely, and very precariously, related to the dopamine balance in your brain. It is important to note that any shift in this balance can cause anxiety. It is actually one of the main symptoms of an increased dopamine level. However, it seems that lower levels of the neurotransmitter cause anxiety as well. Thus once again, the lower the level of dopamine that comes with Parkinson’s can cause anxiety.
The irony of this anxiety duality is not lost in the psychiatric community. While the symptom of anxiety is the same for both high and low levels of dopamine, the subtype of the disorder is technically different. Those with high-level dopamine anxiety simply “feel” different than those with low dopamine level anxiety. The medical community cannot yet really explain how these two subtypes of anxiety differ. It is simply known that both seem to be related to your brain’s dopamine balance. However precarious this balance between the two factors may be, it is important to note that a relationship between the two exists. Anxiety is, therefore, an important, even if oblique, early sign of Parkinson’s.
Early signs of Parkinson’s: Diagnosing
It is important to note that Parkinson’s Disease has no one definitive sign or symptom. Parkinson’s is rather a disease that is both defined and diagnosed by a combination of symptoms. Diagnosis is only further complicated by the fact that Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive disease. Early signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s start out quite subtly and grow in both strength and frequency as the disease progresses. Noticing the early signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s can, therefore, be quite difficult. This is especially true if the symptom is sporadic. In fact, it is often the friends and family of a Parkinson’s patient who first notice early symptoms of the disease. The struggle to diagnose Parkinson’s is confused even further by the fact that many early Parkinsonian symptoms are experienced by what is often millions of people who do not have Parkinson’s. It is therefore extremely imperative to look at the early signs of Parkinson’s listed above with a critical stance. All of these factors combine to make diagnosing Parkinson’s quite a complex task that must be done by a professional.
So when should you seek help?
While diagnosing Parkinson’s is a difficult task at best, your chances of getting the help you need to live and better and longer life increase dramatically the earlier the disease is caught. The National Parkinson’s Foundation estimates that as many as 6.400 people die each year from the disease simply from a lack of proper care. Therefore, voicing your concerns early is very important. Be on the lookout for any combination of the early signs and symptoms listed above.
Now, I know that this is a complex task and that the above list is enough to make anyone feel paranoid. So, most importantly trust yourself! You know your body better than anyone else. Therefore do not be afraid to speak up when you really feel like something is not right. It just might save your life. If you have any questions or want to sure your experience please leave your comment below!
Amanda is an experienced content writer who graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in psychology. Since graduating, she has worked as both and hands-on practitioner and researcher in the field. She currently specializes in research and writing about the psychological and health ramifications of trauma. She is particularly interested in the neuropsychology of PTSD and traumatic brain injury, TBI, in combat veterans. She hopes to one day work as a trauma treatment specialist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.