What Is Parkinson's Disease?

By , Senior contributing editor
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Quick summary

Parkinson's disease is a complex and progressive neurological disorder. Symptoms differ greatly from person to person, so much so that there's no predicting for sure which ones a patient will experience or how quickly. No cure exists yet. However, as neurological disorders go, this one is among the most treatable. Responses to treatment vary, but medications can give a patient substantial symptom relief and a good quality of life for many years, sometimes a decade or more. When drugs aren't enough, brain surgery may be an option. Here's a primer on the disease.

Parkinson's disease gradually impairs the ability to move, walk, talk, and swallow. It typically develops when patients are in their 50s or 60s, but in roughly 8 percent of cases it strikes before age 40.

For some people, the condition can be severely debilitating in the long term; others are able to function relatively well even after 25 years of living with Parkinson's disease.

The disease stems from gradual destruction of certain nerve cells -- in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra -- that make a key chemical known as dopamine. Dopamine helps relay messages within the brain centers that orchestrate muscles of the body to produce smooth, coordinated motions. Without that signal, muscles can't respond properly.

Parkinson's isn't a death sentence

With current treatments, average life expectancy with Parkinson's disease is nearly normal, and the disease process isn't itself fatal. But severely disabled patients can die from complications of the illness. For instance, problems with swallowing can cause patients to choke or aspirate food into their lungs, leading to infection and deadly pneumonia. Or a bad fall might cause a broken hip and contribute to a general decline from which the patient never recovers.

Diagnosis can be tricky in early stages

About 5 to 10 percent of Parkinson's disease patients are wrongly told at first that they have some other condition. And up to 20 percent of people given a Parkinson's diagnosis don't actually have the illness. To obtain an accurate assessment, it would be best for a patient to see a movement disorder specialist, a neurologist with one to two years of extra training in treating Parkinson's disease and similar illnesses.

Because there's no lab test to pinpoint Parkinson's disease, the doctor identifies it by examining and questioning the patient, looking for a certain constellation of clinical signs. Parkinson's disease belongs to a category of neurologic disorders that all cause similar symptoms, known as parkinsonism. So the physician must rule those out and other potential diagnoses such as small strokes, arthritis, head injury, and essential tremor.