What are the first signs of Parkinson’s disease?

Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2024

You have heard about Parkinson’s disease, but how much do you know about the condition? Some of the first signs of Parkinson’s disease may surprise you.

Parkinson’s disease, sometimes called PD, is the second most common neurodegenerative disease among Americans. Only Alzheimer’s disease is more common. More than 1 million people in the United States are currently living with PD, and each year, nearly 90,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease.

Are you wondering what you should know about the disorder and what symptoms you should be aware of? Keep reading for the details.

Understanding Parkinson’s disease

PD is a condition affecting the brain that causes uncontrollable movements. Specifically, the disorder affects dopamine-producing neurons in the part of the brain known as the basal ganglia. This part of the brain is responsible for movement.

Parkinson’s disease causes the neurons in this part of the brain to be impaired or die off, which decreases the production of dopamine. When your body doesn’t produce enough dopamine, the ability to move is impaired.

As the condition progresses, that portion of your brain deteriorates, and symptoms worsen over time. While you might think of Parkinson’s disease as causing symptoms that affect muscles and movement, it can also impact the senses, cognition, and mental health.

Eventually, Parkinson’s disease can damage the nerve endings that produce norepinephrine, part of the central nervous system. This can cause problems such as an irregular heart rate, drops in blood pressure and fatigue.

Who’s at risk of Parkinson’s disease

Anyone can develop Parkinson’s disease, but it’s rare among those younger than age 50. Because of that, it’s known as an “age-related” brain condition. The risk of developing the disease increases as you get older.

While researchers don’t fully understand what causes PD in all cases, there are some known risk factors. Risk factors include:

  • Environmental factors, such as exposure to toxins
  • Family history of Parkinson’s disease
  • Genetic mutations
  • Male sex

Of these, genes play the most significant role, with up to 15 percent of cases being attributed to a genetic factor, such a family propensity for the disease or a specific genetic marker.

Early signs & symptoms of Parkinson’s disease

According to the National Institute on Aging, there are four main symptoms of Parkinson’s disease: tremor, muscle stiffness, slowed movement and impaired balance and coordination.

These are the broad categories of symptoms that people will experience as Parkinson’s disease develops, but what symptoms should you watch for in the beginning stages of the disease? The Parkinson’s Foundation has identified 10 early signs of the disorder:

  • Change in expression.
    This sign is commonly known as a “masked face,” and essentially, it’s a depressed or even angry expression that isn’t indicative of how you’re actually feeling.
  • Constipation.
    You might not think of this as movement-related, but it’s a sign that affects the movement of your bowels. Experiencing difficulty moving your bowels can be a sign of PD.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
    If you’ve previously been a sound sleeper and now find yourself thrashing around as you sleep, those sudden nocturnal movements can be a sign of Parkinson’s disease.
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting.
    Low blood pressure can occur in those who have Parkinson’s disease. Because you can’t overtly see your blood pressure, these signs can be visual indicators.
  • Handwriting changes.
    Has your handwriting gotten smaller? If the sizing of your writing has decreased or your words are crowded together, it can be a sign of Parkinson’s known as micrographia.
  • Loss of smell.
    While a loss of smell is also associated with other conditions, including COVID-19, it can be a sign of Parkinson’s disease.
  • Mobility problems.
    Many problems related to moving and walking can be signs of Parkinson’s disease. This includes stiffness, discomfort when moving your shoulders or hips, and even a feeling of being “stuck.”
  • Posture changes.
    Stooping, leaning, or slouching, particularly if you haven’t done so previously, can be early signs of Parkinson’s disease.
  • Tremor.
    Shaking can be normal if you’re stressed or have just exercised. In some cases, a tremor may also be associated with a medication or another medical condition. If you notice a shake when you’re at rest, particularly in a finger or your chin, it’s worth talking with a medical provider. 
  • Voice changes.
    Have you noticed that your voice sounds softer than usual or like you have a cold that lingers? While voice changes can be the result of an infection or even acid reflux, they can also be a sign of PD.

As the condition progresses, those with the disease may also experience symptoms such as depression or anxiety, difficulty swallowing or chewing, problems with urination and skin problems.

If you experience any of the symptoms identified above, particularly those without any known potential cause (such as a medication or another medical condition), talk about what you’re experiencing with your primary care provider. Your provider can advise you about next steps, including referrals to specialists like a neurologist.

Learn more

Northeast Georgia Physicians Group Neurology treats a wide range of neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s disease. Call 770-219-6520 or NGPG Neurology for more information.