The Parkinson’s Primer: What is Parkinson’s Disease?

At least once a day, “John” and his at-home caregiver Russ would be taking a walk, and John’s feet would simply stop moving.  They would literally freeze.  Sometimes, John would do what Russ would call moonwalking, which was when his knees would be moving but his feet wouldn’t be going anywhere.  Russ would then say, “Take a step, John,” and often that reminder would be enough to jumpstart his walking.  If that didn’t work, Russ would touch John’s heel with his own foot, and he could then continue walking.  When this freezing happened, John knew what was going on, but his body just wouldn’t go.  As unusual as it may sound, this daily freezing is pretty typical for those living with Parkinson’s disease.


affordable home care services for seniors eldercare at home care in Minnesota senior citizen care for older people assisted home care companies at home caregivers home help for the elderly home care serviceWhat is Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a degeneration of brain cells in the section of the brain where dopamine is produced.  Since dopamine is what the brain uses to communicate muscle movement to the rest of the body, as the disease progresses, it becomes difficult to control all muscle movement.  In its early stages, Parkinson’s manifests itself through slight changes that often get misdiagnosed—changes in taste or smell and changes in sleep patterns.  Only once 60-80% of the dopamine-producing cells have been compromised does the disease affect physical movement in the ways that are most familiar to people.



Some Effects of Parkinson’s

1.  Tremors in limbs.  As the disease progresses, people start to have tremors in their limbs while awake but at rest.  Tremors affect a specific limb but can change upon movement.  These tremors are not the same as the all-out shaking that is often associated with Parkinson’s.

2.  Stiffness of muscles, including the appearance of a flat affect in the face.  This can also affect swallowing, making choking a serious concern.

3.  Slowness in movement, often causing a shuffling gait, small handwriting, or the loss of the ability to perform fine motor skills, such as tying shoes.  At times, those with Parkinson’s will freeze and will be completely unable to make a muscle movement.

4.  Balance and coordination issues.  Those with Parkinson’s are at an increased risk for falls, particularly for backward falls.

5.  Dementia.  Thirty percent of those with Parkinson’s will develop memory loss as a result of the disease.  It can also cause confusion, paranoia, depression, and hallucinations.

6.  Shaking.  The shaking typically associated with Parkinson’s is a side effect of drugs used to control the disease.  Since Parkinson’s symptoms result from a lack of dopamine, drugs used to treat the disease help the brain to artificially produce it.  As doctors attempt to find the right balance of drugs, the effect can be overmedication, causing the shaking commonly associated with the disease.


For more information on Parkinson’s, check out our Introduction to Parkinson’s and our follow-up Parkinson’s Primer: 10 Tips to Help You in Taking Care of Elderly Parents with Parkinson’s.


Paul Blom, CEO

President, National Parkinson Foundation Minnesota

May 4, 2012


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