Diagnosing Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease can be difficult to diagnose, especially in the early stages. The initial diagnosis of any disease can be hard for patients and families. Some individuals may wait years for a correct diagnosis.
Specialists use several methods to determine the cause of your Parkinsonism. Parkinsonism is a term that refers to several diseases resulting from dopamine deficiencies in the part of the brain that controls movement. As a result, some may feel a sense of relief after diagnosis because they have finally received an explanation for their symptoms. Whether or not you feel some sense of relief at diagnosis, coping with the news can be challenging. The best line of defense for anyone facing a new diagnosis is education and information. There are helpful resources to educate yourself and minimize fear and uncertainty following diagnosis.
Parkinson’s disease is characterized by four key motor symptoms, including: tremor or shaking when resting; slowness of movement (bradykinesia); muscle rigidity or stiffness; and postural instability (poor balance and coordination). Parkinson’s disease may be diagnosed for patients who suffer from at least two of these four cardinal symptoms.
There is no single medical test to confirm a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Many patients are diagnosed by their general physician and referred to a specialist, such as a neurologist or movement disorder specialist (visit our Additional Resources page for a list of specialists & clinics). PAC recommends seeing a movement disorder specialist or neurologist who treats people with Parkinson’s disease on a regular basis. Clinicians will diagnose based on your self-reported medical history and evaluation of a neurological test.
Many specialists will test your response to PD medication to further confirm their diagnosis. In other words, if your doctor prescribes Parkinson’s medication for your motor symptoms and the symptoms subside, then it is likely Parkinson’s disease is responsible for your symptoms. A CT Scan, PET scan or DaTscan may also be utilized to help in diagnosis or exclude other possible causes of your symptoms. A DatScan is a diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s disease which is used to evaluated dopamine activity in the brain. Remember, these tools cannot definitely diagnose PD alone, but they can help your neurologist along the way.
Early-onset Parkinson’s, also known as young-onset, follows the same difficult diagnosis pattern as typical Parkinson’s disease but the individual is much younger. There is conflicting information on what age constitutes early-onset PD, but most agree a diagnosis under the age of 50 is considered early-onset.
If you are experiencing symptoms, PAC recommends you consult a neurologist or movement disorder specialist as soon as possible.
Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive neurological disease with symptoms varying for each patient. PD is characterized by four key motor symptoms, including: a resting tremor; slowness of movement (bradykinesia); muscle rigidity or stiffness; and postural instability (poor balance and coordination). Motor symptoms in Parkinson’s disease typically begin on one side of the body.
The disease also causes non-motor symptoms which often appear before a person experiences motor symptoms and can prove to be more troublesome for some. Non-motor symptoms include fatigue, excessive saliva, constipation, vision and dental problems, sleep disturbances, lack of facial expressions, orthostatic hypotension (low blood pressure when standing up), and mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and dementia. Researchers are still investigating these symptoms as some may be caused by other conditions or medication side effects. For example, dyskinesia is often thought of as a symptom of PD, but it’s actually a common side effect of Parkinson’s treatment.