Parkinson Disease and Its Effects on Muscle Control

Parkinson’s disease is a chronic progressive neurological disease that affects nerve cells (neurons) in an area of the brain near the neck, known as the substantia nigra. These cells normally produce dopamine, a chemical (neurotransmitter) that transmits signals between areas in the brain. These signals, when working normally, coordinate smooth and balanced muscle movement. Parkinson’s disease, however, causes neurons in the substantia nigra cells to die, leading to a lack of dopamine in the brain, especially in the part of the brain known as the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia are responsible for organizing movement commands from other parts of the brain. The loss of dopamine causes patients to lose the ability to control their body movements.

Approximately one million Americans have Parkinson’s disease. More than 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year. There is increasing evidence that Parkinson’s disease may be inherited. Men after the age of 60 are more likely to develop the disease than women. The average age at the onset of symptoms is 60. However, 10 percent of patients are diagnosed before age 40. Sometimes Parkinson’s disease occurs in younger adults. It affects both men and women. In some cases, Parkinson’s disease runs in families. When a young person is affected, it is usually because of a form of the disease that runs in families.

Still, there is much we don’t know about the disease. In some cases it may be caused by genetics, although even if you have someone in your family with Parkinson’s disease, the risk remains small. Exposure to toxins in the environment, such as herbicides and pesticides, may also play a role in causing Parkinson’s, but again the risk appears small. Despite the questions that remain unanswered, there is hope. While there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease yet, there are a number of treatments and lifestyle changes that can substantially reduce or delay the onset of symptoms and help you enjoy a full life.

Parkinson’s disease affects people differently. Not everyone will experience all the symptoms of Parkinson’s and the progression of the disease can also vary greatly from person to person. There’s no way to predict which symptoms you will get or when you will get them. Most of the symptoms of the disease involve the disruption of motor functions (muscle and movement). However, lack of energy, pain, and changes to mood and memory can also occur as part of the disease. In most cases, symptoms begin gradually and may include.

  • Tremors
  • Slow Movement (Bradykinesia)
  • Rigidity
  • Poor Balance

There are no lab tests that can definitively diagnose Parkinson’s disease. Your doctor will diagnose Parkinson’s disease based on your symptoms and a neurological exam that will likely include testing your reflexes and observing things like muscle strength throughout your body, coordination, balance, and other details of movement. It’s a good idea to make a list of all the symptoms you’re experiencing, even those that may seem unrelated, along with all medications you’re taking, in order to provide your doctor with as clear a picture as possible.Your doctor may also perform tests—blood or urine tests, CT or MRI scans—to rule out other conditions that may be causing your symptoms, such as nerve dysfunction or narrowing of the spinal canal.

There is no known cure for Parkinson’s disease. The goal of treatment is to control symptoms. Medications control symptoms, mostly by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain. At certain points during the day, the helpful effects of the medication often wears off, and symptoms can return. Work closely with your doctors and therapists to find a treatment program that works best for you. Never change or stop taking any medications without talking with your doctor. Many medications can cause severe side effects, including hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and delirium. Monitoring and follow-up by the health care provider is important.

Celeste Botonakis

On the Nursing Assistant Guides blog, certified medical assistant Celeste Botonakis explores the daily life of a CMA. She'll keep you up-to-date with the latest on what’s happening in the field, and provides tips for those who are interested in becoming a medical or nursing assistant. Celeste has served in the medical field for over six years, and is passionate about helping people. She currently works at CSR Primary Care in Skokie, Illinois. Click here to learn more about Celeste Botonakis and