Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder affecting the nervous system. It occurs when certain neurons that produce the chemical dopamine begin to break down and die, usually around age 60 or older. Although there is no cure for Parkinson’s, your prognosis is better if you start medication and therapy as early as possible to arrest the progress of the disease, making it critical to watch out for its first warning signs.
The best-known early sign of Parkinson’s is a slight tremor or shaking somewhere in your body, usually in one of your hands or your fingers. It sometimes takes the form of a “pill-rolling tremor,” which is a tendency to rub the thumb and forefinger together, or your hand may simply shake unconsciously while you’re at rest.
Another common symptom is muscle stiffness; your shoulders or hips may feel painful, or you may notice that your arms don’t swing while you move. Sometimes, the stiffness is pronounced enough that your feet shuffle when you walk. Your posture might become stooped or hunched, and you may notice that your handwriting appears small and cramped. You may also notice that you cannot smell as well as you used to. In fact, researchers have theorized that the neural deterioration of Parkinson’s often starts near the part of the brain that controls the sense of smell.
Certain early symptoms of Parkinson’s are easier for others to detect than for you. One of these symptoms is called “masking.” In the early stages of Parkinson’s, your body has difficulty performing automatic movements, including blinking and making facial expressions. Others may comment that you tend to look serious, depressed or angry because your facial expressions are fixed. Additionally, in conversation, others may notice that your speech is softer or more slurred, or that you speak in a monotone. These speech changes are linked to Parkinson’s disease.
If you notice any of these signs, call your doctor. Because there is no blood test or other simple diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s, your doctor will probably refer you to a neurologist who will review your symptoms. If you have Parkinson’s, your doctor can prescribe medications that either transform into dopamine or mimic dopamine in your brain, which will help compensate for the dopamine-producing neurons that are lost. Many patients have dramatic improvements when they combine these medications with occupational therapy.
One of the best things you can do for yourself to help counteract the symptoms of Parkinson’s is to exercise. According to the National Parkinson Foundation, exercise can help minimize the tremors associated with Parkinson’s as well as improve motor coordination, balance and flexibility.
Some studies even suggest that exercise helps to stop the spread of the disorder in the brain itself, although not conclusively. Your exercise program should include some combination of stretching, aerobic exercise and weightlifting. Talk about any potential exercise programs with your doctor or a physical therapist to make sure that your program challenges you enough to be effective without pushing you so far that you hurt yourself.